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IU Northwest students are among Indiana’s most civically engaged citizens, study reveals

Research points to high civic engagement and spotlights opportunities to increase community involvement in support of the campus’s mission


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Emily Banas
Office of Marketing and Communications

Erika Rose
Office of Marketing and Communications

In an era of low voter turnout and increased demands for volunteers and community connectivity in Indiana, graduate students from the Indiana University Northwest School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) were tasked with researching this question: “What is the civic health of our student body?”

The search for that answer produced a semester’s worth of research focused on the student body’s voting behavior, civic engagement, social connectedness, volunteerism, and perception of the IU Northwest mission. The study, dubbed the IU Northwest Student Body Civic Health Index (SBCHI), was led by IU Northwest Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Joseph Ferrandino, Ph.D.

Ferrandino’s class of 17 graduate students was largely inspired by a similar study, the Indiana Civic Health Index (INCHI), conducted in late 2011, which compared the level of civic participation in Indiana to that of other states. The students closely modeled their study after INCHI to measure and record the level of IU Northwest civic engagement against that of the citizens of Indiana.

Survey Highlights

One of the most promising SBCHI findings showed that voting is something IU Northwest students truly value as a civic duty. Eighty-five percent of IU Northwest students reported being registered to vote, and two in three students (66 percent) voted in the 2008 Presidential election.

“This data was extremely interesting to me and my students, particularly because the IU Northwest student body appears to be much more involved in the democratic process than the rest of the state,” Ferrandino explained. “When a similar question was posed in the INCHI study, only 61 percent of Indiana residents were registered to vote, and ironically, only 61 percent voted in the 2008 election.”

Ferrandino believes this heightened level of civic participation by the IU Northwest student body may be directly related to the campus’s mission and commitment to community engagement, which is demonstrated daily through course work and projects that help to connect students with the community.

“Our study shows the campus has done quite well in the conveyance of its mission relative to the importance of voting, civic engagement and volunteering,” Ferrandino said. “More than half (57 percent) of the student body agrees that IU Northwest stresses the importance of voting and voter registration for students.”

Results of the SBCHI survey also showed that 68 percent believe IU Northwest provides students with volunteer opportunities. In fact, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed (64 percent) reported that they have volunteered at least once in the past 12 months.

In comparison, the INCHI survey found that Indiana ranked 32nd in the nation with a volunteerism rate of 26.1 percent, very close to the national average of 26.3 percent.

Despite a level of student volunteerism that is more than 150 percent higher than the state average, 26 percent of respondents have only volunteered between one and 10 hours in the last year.

“Though the students in this sample are more engaged than the average Hoosier on many dimensions, there is a clear, untapped capacity in terms of the total hours spent volunteering,” Ferrandino said. “Our (IU Northwest) students perceive the university as providing opportunities to volunteer, but many are spending less than 10 hours a year in the community.”

Lessons Learned

Students in Ferrandino’s class, like project leader Jennifer Clark, 28, of Schererville, hope this study will help to spark a greater level of volunteerism among the student body. 

Clark believes the low level of volunteer hours can easily be attributed to the many adult learners, as well as younger students, who attend IU Northwest that must balance the competing demands of college with work and family responsibilities.

Clark, who attests she also is hard pressed for volunteering a significant number of hours, does volunteer for her church and the local United Way. She urged her fellow IU Northwest students to “find something they love and love doing.”

“Get involved in the community,” she said. “You never know who you will meet or the opportunities you will experience.”

In a report detailing the SBCHI findings, the SPEA students proposed a simple solution for increasing the level of volunteerism throughout Northwest Indiana: If each IU Northwest student volunteered one more hour each month, that would equate to 66,000 volunteer hours per year, or the equivalent of 33 full-time employees for local organizations and governmental agencies.

“This minor change in the lives of students would be beneficial to so many throughout the Northwest Indiana region,” Clark said.

“This (data) represents an important and available resource that is not used to its capacity, which is a promising find for the local community network and the students (who) need to strengthen their ties to the community,” Ferrandino said.


Strengthening community ties is a core area of interest and expertise for Ferrandino, who is an expert in criminal justice, public policy, and civic health and engagement. Graduate students who take his Fall 2012 and Spring 2013 semester courses will engage in similar research.

This type of research, Ferrandino explained, shows great synergy between the SPEA and IU Northwest missions.

“The IU Northwest student body is engaged, but needs to strengthen its weak ties and put the university’s mission into practice on a large scale to provide our community partners with quality, well-needed work to enhance their overall capacities,” he said.

About the Survey

The class (V506, Statistical Analysis for Effective Decision Making) surveyed students at the undergraduate and graduate level through an online survey. To achieve the sample, several emails were distributed through the IU Northwest listserv to ensure that all students had the opportunity to complete the survey. Faculty and staff were asked to encourage students to participate. The survey was open from January 11, 2012 through February 17, 2012.

A total of 374 students responded to the survey; the margin of error was calculated at +/- 4.9 percent.