How Do Students Perceive Social Entrepreneurship vs. Service-Learning?

Guest post by David Malone, Ph.D. and Dave Emmerling, M.P.H. | Duke Service-Learning

During a visit to Duke last winter, David Scobey, a leading scholar in civic engagement, posed the question: are civic engagement and social innovation rivals or compatible colleagues? With so many programs and opportunities at Duke dedicated to both, students interested in social change may have complicated views of each approach. At Duke Service-Learning, we are interested in this question of how students perceive different approaches of engaging with community, and for the past decade have conducted a series of research studies designed to provide insight into Duke students’ experiences in and perceptions of civic engagement and service-learning. We have been greatly supported in this work by our colleague Dr. Matt Serra, Director of the Office of Assessment.

For the past two years, our research has been examining student perceptions of social entrepreneurship (SE) and service-learning (SL) and how this might impact their ideas and actions in terms of civic engagement, social justice and their relationships with community. Our efforts to gain a clearer picture of service-learning and social entrepreneurship are important because we see student perceptions as drivers of student behavior. Additionally, the creation of high quality service-learning practices can be informed by a deeper understanding of how students view civic engagement.

Professor Scobey suggested that SE may be associated with the following characteristics:

  • Starts from idea that the world presents problems to be solved or innovated upon
  • Project based
  • Community/public is client in need of innovation and skills
  • Values design thinking
  • Hero/leader develops project for community
  • Leaders are valued for “hutzpah”

In comparison, Scobey uses these characteristics as descriptors of SL:

  • Starts from idea that world starts with relationships and partnerships and from them emerge the problems to address
  • Builds relationships
  • Collaborators and co-creators with community
  • Ethics of collaboration
  • Apprentice in institutional partnership
  • Leaders are valued for “humility”


We wondered whether these apparent differences in language, values and motivations associated with each framework might have significant implications for civic engagement efforts on college campuses. To gain insight into these issues we designed and administered a survey which consisted of a series of Likert-type response items and conducted focus interview groups. For example, students completed tasks where they reported whether they associated words such as heroic, inclusive and privileged more with service-learning or social entrepreneurship.

We found that students clearly differentiated between two distinct approaches in SL and SE. For example, students associated SE with completing consultant-generated projects, perceiving community as client, gaining effectiveness from innovative action and having the starting point of community engagement as solving a problem. Students associated SE significantly more than SL with statements such as being “an innovative approach to social change” and being “viewed more favorably by future employers.” In contrast, SL was associated with completing community-generated projects, perceiving community as your partner, gaining effectiveness through the power of partnerships and reciprocity with the community.

What are the implications of this study? Clearly those of us who work in the civic engagement field need to recognize that college students are not blank slates as they engage with communities. When students engage with communities, they come with preconceived notions about the work they are about to engage in – they bring divergent values, assumptions, and epistemological beliefs. For example, if a student views the community as a place with “deficits” and their own knowledge and skills as the “assets” which the university is providing, their demeanor is likely to do harm to the community through acting on these beliefs. Or if a student’s epistemic beliefs are that valid knowledge can only come from scholars within academic settings then knowledge and experience that community members bring and share might be discounted or ignored. Unless built within the context of critical consciousness, both SE and SL can reinforce power differences and stereotyping. Faculty and staff members need to bring these values and beliefs out into the open and to engage everyone involved in deeper conversations about attitudes and assumptions before we engage civically.

Understanding student perceptions of civic engagement can help shape our work in important ways. We need to establish a lens and skillset for ethical and equitable partnerships with community that sustainably builds capacity and fosters dignity. In 2017, Duke Service-Learning will continue this research by creating rubrics and standards for what constitutes high quality community engagement. Finding ways to support a deeper dive into these conversations through our classroom experiences is essential.

Check out the more than 75 service-learning designated courses which are supported through the Office of Service-Learning.

[1] Scobey, David. “Social Entrepreneurship & the Business of Civic Engagement.” Social Entrepreneurship & the Business of Civic Engagement. Durham. 9 Feb. 2015. Speech.