Westfield State nursing students participated in an international public health mission to Santa Maria de Jesus, Guatemala in March 2014.

Strategic Initiatives

Civic Learning


Massachusetts is the first state in the nation to make Civic Learning a goal for all undergraduates in public higher education and the first state in the nation to establish a shared goal of Civic Learning for K-12 and public higher education.


Dr. John Reiff
Director of Civic Learning and Engagement 


2014 – Present



Related Data



Student Identities

K-12 System
Public Higher Ed System

Related Initiatives

Student Learning Assessment


In May 2014, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education (BHE) adopted a state policy on civic learning for public colleges and universities and committed to work with the Commonwealth’s community colleges, state universities and University of Massachusetts campuses to incorporate civic learning as an "expected outcome" for undergraduate students beginning in the 2014-15 academic year.

The policy defined civic learning as the acquisition of the knowledge, the intellectual skills, and the applied competencies or practical skills that citizens need for informed and effective participation in civic and democratic life. It also means acquiring an understanding of the social values that underlie democratic structures and practices.

pdf Read the full policy

The Board stated that the development of detailed outcomes within each of the four components contained in this definition (and the academic coursework, co-curricular activities and off-campus civic engagement to achieve them) should be left to the individual campuses.

Seeking Additional Resources

The DHE is exploring external funding sources that would allow it both to build its own capacity to support Civic Learning on the campuses and to provide funds directly to campuses to build their own capacities. These explorations have led to partnerships with the Association of American Colleges and Universities and with two other statewide civic learning initiatives in public higher education in Virginia and Maryland.

Areas of Work: Four-Point Action Plan to Advance System-Wide Goals

1. Attention to civic learning as a goal in campus strategic plans.

Since 2014, board review of campus strategic plans now includes attention to a commitment to civic learning.

2. Facilitation and support for campus work in civic learning through conferences and meetings to share best practices and provision of funding for campus projects.

Faculty, staff and administrators are meeting regularly to discuss both how to facilitate Civic Learning for students and how to track this critically important work on the campuses. Since the 2014-2015 academic year, the DHE has sponsored a statewide conference on Civic Learning for faculty and administrators of public colleges and universities, drawing between 100 and 150 people each year. 

In addition, many campuses have organized their own workshops, and the Director of Civic Learning and Engagement is available to meet on campuses to lead discussions on this work with faculty, staff, and administrators.

3. Development of new ways to measure and report students' civic learning outcomes.

Since 2014, work to measure student civic learning has taken two forms.

Designating Civic Learning Courses

In the course and student data reported twice each year by campuses to the DHE, campuses are tracking inputs to civic learning by designating courses with substantial focus on any of the four elements in the Board’s definition. There are five designations they may assign:

  1. Civic Learning with Engagement Required: Courses in which all students are engaged in Civic Learning work beyond the classroom.
  2. Civic Learning with Engagement Optional: Courses in which students can choose between a Civic Engagement project or placement and another project of similar weight which does not require Civic Engagement but does have a Civic Learning focus.
  3. Civic Learning (without Engagement): Courses which simply focus substantially on the knowledge, intellectual skills, practical skills, and/or values involved in informed and effective participation in civic and democratic life.
  4. Not Applicable: Courses which have been reviewed and do not have a substantial Civic Learning focus.
  5. Not Reviewed: This designation will be the default for courses not yet reviewed.

PDF Guidance for Designating Civic Learning Courses

Assessing Outcomes

The DHE has worked with two committees of national experts to draft rubrics which can be used by faculty to assess two domains of civic learning demonstrated by students in their work—civic knowledge and civic values.  These rubrics, similar in form to the AAC&U VALUE rubrics, await testing and final revision; they are available for field testing here. Civic Skills may be assessed through several of the AAC&U VALUE Rubrics, especially the Civic Engagement rubric.

4. Collaboration with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop a cross-sector plan for civic learning from kindergarten through college.

In January 2016, the Board of Higher Education and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education both voted to add Civic Preparation to their pre-existing Joint Agreement on College and Career Readiness, thus making Massachusetts the first state in the nation to frame civic learning as a goal for public education from K through 16. 

In 2018, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) released a revised History and Social Science Curriculum Framework that emphasizes civic education throughout grades K-12 and requires a new year-long Civics course in grade 8. The DHE is now working with DESE to plan how K-12 education in Massachusetts can coordinate its work on Civic Learning with the ongoing work in higher education.

National Coalition: Civic Learning and Democracy Engagement (CLDE)

The Massachusetts Department of Higher Education has joined with the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), Complete College America, College Promise, and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association to form Civic Learning and Democracy Engagement (CLDE), a new coalition of higher education and student success organizations committed to ensuring that civic learning is both expected and experienced equitably across postsecondary education in the United States.

The founding CLDE commitment is described in a statement titled “Our Shared Commitment: Democracy Learning is a Top Priority for Postsecondary Education.” Dozens of additional partner organizations have signed onto the statement, pledging to advance the civic mission of postsecondary education by engaging with policy leaders, showcasing examples, promoting alignment with P-12 reforms, and working to provide high-quality civic learning and make equitable participation a documented achievement.

Massachusetts was the first public higher education system in the nation to call in 2014 for civic learning to be an expected outcome for all undergraduates. The Commonwealth’s system-wide commitment to civic learning fits naturally with the Equity Agenda, which calls for equity and racial justice in all elements of the undergraduate experience. Through equitable access to civic learning, all students—including students of color who have previously experienced barriers to their success—will develop the knowledge and skills that they need for informed and effective participation in civic and democratic life. DHE brings to the coalition experience tying civic learning to a vision of equity.

Campus Resources

Many of our campuses were doing excellent work with Civic Learning before the Board named this as a goal of the Vision Project and created a policy to define and shape it; this initiative provides a way to make that campus-based work visible and to build on it throughout the system. As this website develops, we want to serve as a clearinghouse for Civic Learning resources developed on the campuses (faculty manuals and other tools, curricular and co-curricular models, research reports, etc.). If you have produced a resource for Civic Learning on your campus that you think could be useful to other campuses, please send the URL for that resource to Dr. John Reiff, Director of Civic Learning and Engagement, at jreiff@bhe.mass.edu, and we’ll provide the link for others.

Here is one example of Civic Engagement at one of our campuses, Holyoke Community College.  This video was produced just before COVID-19 struck, so you’ll see students, faculty, and community members interacting closely without masks. Since the pandemic started, our campuses have been working with their community partners to create new forms of civic engagement that bring equal benefits to students and community without adding to the risk of the disease spreading.

In addition to being important in its own right, campus work on Civic Learning—and in particular, work on Civic Engagement—fosters student development in ways that contribute directly to the Department’s strategic priority of Equity. Mounting evidence nationally and from within our own system demonstrates that student participation in well-designed Civic Engagement courses helps them develop knowledge, skills, and motivations that close achievement gaps and lead them to persist to graduation at higher rates. If that engagement is also designed to involve them in the learning and development of K-12 students from populations under-represented in higher education, it also helps those younger students develop a vision of the possibility of college and the capacity to get there. The HCC video linked above shows how both of these outcomes are possible.

Civic Learning Professional Development Events

Each year since the 2014-2015 academic year, the Department of Higher Education has held a statewide conference on civic learning for faculty and administrators of public colleges and universities, drawing between 100 and 150 people each year. The Department of Higher Education also collaborates with local institutions and organizations on additional professional development opportunities.

2021: Anti-Racist Community-Engaged Learning: Principles, Practices, and Pedagogy

September 20, 2021
Virtual Symposium
Sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education (DHE), Campus Compact, Salem State, Worcester State, and Fitchburg State Universities, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Symposium Agenda

2019: Making Democracy Work: Civic Learning and Civic Engagement in Higher Education

May 28, 2019
Fitchburg State University
Co-sponsored by Campus Compact for Southern New England

PDF Conference Program

2018: How Civic Engagement Impacts Student Learning and Student Success

May 29, 2018
Fitchburg State University
Co-sponsored by Campus Compact for Southern New England

PDF Conference Program

2017: Civic Learning in Context

May 22, 2017
Edward M. Kennedy Institute

PDF Conference Program

2016: Pathways to Civic Learning

June 16, 2016
Salem State University (Co-sponsored by Salem State)

PDF Conference Program

2014: Beyond Civics 101: Higher Education's New Civic Mission