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10 Colleges Making a Social Impact

Turn your passion into action by earning your degree from a college that cares about social causes as much as you do. From dedicated courses and campus organizations to access to education and affordability, learn which colleges are doing their best to make a positive social impact.

Author: Michael Hoffman
Editor: STEPS Staff

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When it comes to applying to colleges, more and more U.S. students are considering factors beyond the academics, sports, and location. Students want to attend a school they can feel good about, one that invests in its community, supports environmental sustainability, and, above all, makes a positive social impact. The Higher Education Research Institute’s (HERI) 2016 Freshman Survey found that students placed a greater importance on social values than at nearly any other time in the survey’s past 51 years. As a result, universities are creating programs, campus organizations, departments, and even entire majors and minors focused on issues related to social impact.

If you’re one of the social impact-minded college students described in the HERI survey, the schools in this guide might have just what you’re looking for. From finding a school with adequate diversity and access to financial aid to exploring campuses with dedicated social organizations and community outreach programs, keep reading to see who’s on our list of top colleges making a social impact in 2020.

How Do We Measure a College’s Social Impact?

Social impact matters to colleges and universities, with each approaching the issue from its own unique viewpoint and employing its own policies and programs to achieve certain goals. But how do we decide if the actions taken by these institutions are impacting the world in a positive way? Below are 10 factors you can use to help determine how a school measures up in making the world a better place.


Centers/offices for social impact

There may be no clearer indication of a college’s commitment to positive social impact than through the establishment of a center or office dedicated specifically to its social impact efforts. A good example is Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Dartmouth’s Center for Social Impact was created to prepare its students to become “transformative leaders for the common good” through an array of programs and activities that include local and global internships, volunteer and youth mentoring programs, social impact practicums, and post-graduate opportunities. The Center additionally sponsors its annual Breaking the Mold conference, where students gain insight into creating careers that support the common good.


Social impact courses

Trends on college campuses are often leading indicators of societal changes in their surrounding communities and beyond. This is why some have colleges created courses – and even degrees – addressing these trends. This is certainly true when it comes to issues of social impact. Many schools today are offering entire curriculums based around social justice, diversity, sustainability, and other major social impact topics. A prime example is the Social Impact Pathway program at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, which offers students coursework, labs, and real world experiences in three social impact-related tracks: Policy, Nonprofit, and Social Innovation.


Access to financial aid

No matter where you go or what you study, college can be financially challenging. And unless you’re fortunate enough to have parents or a favorite uncle with deep pockets, you’re going to need one or more sources of financial aid to pay for your education. Fortunately, there are plenty sources out there, including scholarships and grants, and the ever-popular student loan. Some colleges, however, have committed to meeting 100% of the attendance costs for students with demonstrated financial need or, in some cases, all of its students.One such school is Colorado College, which, through a combination of resources (family resources, grants, modest student loans, work opportunities, etc.), ensures that no student meeting admission requirements will be turned away for lack of funds.


Campus diversity

As the nation embraces greater diversity in all of its forms, so have its college campuses. And there are many good reasons to do so. Diversity enriches the learning experience and promotes personal growth of students while preparing graduates to be better coworkers and community leaders. Prospective students, too, are seeking out schools that excel in the promotion of diversity in their student populations, faculties, and staffs.Stony Brook University offers a good example of a college that prioritizes a diverse student population and campus environment by sponsoring diversity-minded scholarships and student groups, and through the activities of its Office of Equity and Access.


Access to online learning

Distance education has become commonplace, with colleges and universities throughout the nation (and the world, for that matter) offering hundreds of degree programs and thousands of courses that can be completed online. But what is often overlooked is the positive impact online learning has made by substantially expanding access to a quality college education to student populations who would otherwise not have it. Through services like edX, for example, many elite schools, such as Harvard and UC Berkeley, offer online courses that can be taken for little or no cost. And at least one U.S.-accredited school, the University of the People, now offers several tuition-free bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.


Campus sustainability

Another major trend for colleges these days is campus sustainability. With a deep and growing concern regarding the climate change crisis, colleges are turning a critical eye to their own consumption practices and enacting policies that encourage and support a healthier and more sustainable campus environment while preparing its graduates to successfully compete in an ever-increasingly green economy. Many schools, like the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, have made substantial commitments to sustainability through programs and practices, such as green construction of campus facilities, sustainability-focused curriculums, energy plans with goals of carbon-neutrality, green investment policies, and many others.


Community involvement and global outreach

Sometimes the greatest positive impact a school and its students can make is outside its campus’s borders. That’s why colleges and universities sponsor community involvement and global outreach programs, like Fordham University’s Center for Community Engaged Learning, which partners with nonprofit service organizations to provide learning opportunities in states like Texas and Mississippi, and countries like India, South Africa, Mexico, and El Salvador. In terms of a positive social impact, these programs are a win-win, providing students with experiences that strengthen their leadership skills, while providing communities in need with services essential to their health, safety, and security.


Student mental health and well-being

Good mental health and well-being are crucial elements to student academic success. The reality on college campuses today, however, is that many students encounter issues of stress and anxiety at times in their academic careers that, in some cases, lead to serious and even life-threatening circumstances. To combat these issues, colleges are establishing comprehensive strategies and services, like those available to University of Chicago students through the UChicago Student Wellness program. Components of UChicago’s program include crisis intervention services, in-person and virtual “drop-by” therapy sessions, longer-term individual and group therapy sessions, eating concern assessment and support, substance abuse evaluation and counseling, and mindfulness meditation courses.


Availability of emergency funding and support

It’s an unfortunate reality that, due to the expense of attending college and overall economic difficulties faced by many in this country, college students often face financial challenges when it comes to earning their education. To aid students finding themselves in temporary dire financial need, many schools have established student emergency funds, like this one at Iowa’s Grinnell College. Fund amounts, program requirements, and expenses covered vary by school, but the intent for all is the same: to provide a crucial safety net to its students without which they might have to drop out and permanently forego their college educations.


Good pay & benefits for staff

When it comes to colleges, social impact – so to speak – begins at home. What we mean is that a college’s social impact is not limited to student and externally-focused programs and policies. An equally important concern is how a school treats its employees. Good pay and generous benefits packages indicate a genuine commitment to a positive campus environment and strong surrounding community. Some schools, like the University of Michigan, go the extra mile by offering a range of employee support services, including flexible work options, child and elder care resources, exercise programs, an emergency hardship program, and many others.

Top Colleges Making a Social Impact

In all fields and in all endeavors, there are leaders and there are followers. This is certainly true when it comes to colleges and the social impact of their activities. We’ve surveyed postsecondary institutions throughout the U.S. to discover which ones are leading the way in creating positive social change. Below are 10 schools that make the list, each offering programs and policies covering all or most of the factors listed above. We’ve highlighted those programs in which each school excels.

American Uni.

American University

American University was founded in Washington D.C. in 1893 by the United Methodist Church with the mission of promoting public service, internationalism, and pragmatic idealism. AU continues its mission of training public servants today. Following a series of campus-related issues of bias, AU established an aggressive program to promote diversity, equality and inclusion. AU’s Center of Diversity and Inclusion offers a range of education, outreach, and advocacy resources that promote and enhance first generation, LGBTQ, multicultural, and women’s experiences on-campus. Additionally, AU’s School of Communication is home to the Center for Media & Social Impact, a research center and lab that offers a wealth of programs and resources for the study and creation of innovative media for social impact.

Arizona State Uni

Arizona State University – Tempe

Arizona State University can justly claim its leadership role among postsecondary institutions in the areas of environmental protection and sustainability through a number of substantial programs and initiatives. ASU Tempe’s Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation, which established the first School of Sustainability in the United States acts as the university’s sustainability research hub, supporting sustainable practices on-campus, locally, nationally, and around the world. ASU is also home to the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, a vigorous community of educators, scientists, and leaders engaged in finding solutions to scientific, economic, and social problems brought about by threats of environmental degradation.

Florida Uni.

Florida International University

Social innovation and changemaking are two terms frequently used by FIU in describing itself. Through its Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship Program, FIU has established a number of important social impact-minded projects, including social innovation and entrepreneurship student groups, a social entrepreneurship speaker program, a social issues film series, and its Living Learning Communities program. The Institute additionally sponsors the annual FIU Changemaker Week that presents activities designed to encourage and support student entrepreneurship. Other social impact programs at FIU include the Office of Engagement, which enables collaborative initiatives between the school and the South Florida Region. Diversity is another hallmark of FIU, with first generation college students making up more than half of its minority-majority population.

Massachusetts Institute

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Consistently ranked as one of the top universities in the world, MIT stands at the cutting edge of scientific academics. It should be no surprise, then, that MIT is also a leader in creating solutions to the global environmental crisis. Through its Office of Sustainability, MIT sponsors a wide range of green programs and practices, including the implementation of solar power, providing subsidies for low-carbon commuting providers, meeting LEED Gold standards in new campus construction and renovations, and much more. Additionally, MIT’s Sloan School of Management has created the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, which provides sustainability education, research, and leadership empowerment resources through joint efforts between MIT students, faculty, and researchers, partnered with government, nonprofits, and the business community.

Pennsylvania Uni.

Pennsylvania State University

Penn State describes its social impact efforts as a community, “… imagining, collaborating, and inventing our way to a better world”. Examples of social-minded efforts include turning waste water treatment into renewable energy sources, applying weather forecasting strategies to the improvement of infectious disease treatment worldwide, and providing outreach by Penn State Law students and faculty members to educate the public on immigration policies. Additionally, Penn State has founded The Sustainability Institute, offering sustainability-related degree programs (including several that can be earned online), student groups and experiences, on-campus recycling and other green practices, and much more, all aligned with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Buffalo Uni.

University of Buffalo

The University of Buffalo has made substantial commitments to diversity, inclusion, equity, and the well-being of its on-campus and off-campus communities. UB’s Intercultural and Diversity Center, for example, is dedicated to creating a strong sense of belonging among all UB students while deepening their understanding of the world around them through student engagement projects and activities. Additionally, UB’s School of Social work sponsors a number of co-curricular community service opportunities for its students, including: the DREAM program, in which students volunteer with local community organizations to work with refugees, asylum-seekers, and residents in assisted-living facilities; Friends of the Night, which provides clothes, food, medical care, and counseling to homeless and destitute Buffalo residents; and the Social Impact Fellows program, in which UB graduate students spend the summer learning about and creating social innovation in Western New York.

Georgia Uni.

University of Georgia

Progressive policies, programs, and initiatives in the environmental field play important roles on the University of Georgia’s Athens campus. The university boasts one of the most active green environments of any postsecondary school in the nation. UGA’s Odum School of Ecology’s holistic approach to ecological studies is reflected through its undergraduate and graduate degree offerings, scholarships, research projects, and outreach programs like EcoReach, which provides educational opportunities to local elementary, middle, and high school students. In addition, UGA’s Office of Sustainability offers an impressive lineup of green resources, including campus sustainability grants of up to $5,000 each for students seeking to initiate projects advancing sustainability in education, research, service, and campus operations.

Maryland Uni.

University of Maryland

Service to others is the overriding theme of academics and activity on the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus. Socially-minded academic life is centered at the UMB School of Social Work, which offers nationally-respected undergraduate and graduate degrees, continuing education programs, field experiences, and international courses and field placements for current and prospective social work professionals. The SSW is also home to the Ruth H. Young Center for Families and Children offering extensive community outreach services, including: Grandparent Family Connections, serving grandparent-headed households; Promise Heights, a partnership with local nonprofits and faith-based organizations focused on improving educational, economic, health, and social opportunities for youth in the Upton/Druid Heights neighborhood of West Baltimore; and the Homelessness Social Work Council, dedicated to providing services to the homeless population. Other UMB social impact-related resources include the Diversity Advisory Council and Community Engagement Center.


University of Massachusetts – Amherst

Student engagement and active participation in social impact issues of every kind play a key role on the UM Amherst campus, beginning with diversity advocacy. As a public land-grant institution, UM Amherst takes seriously its commitment to inclusion of historically underrepresented populations. The university’s Institute of Diversity Sciences, for example, brings together students and faculty by hosting research groups in the areas of learning, health, and climate change. The Institute is also a participant in the REBLS Network, a research-practice partnership of researchers, educators, business leaders, and students dedicated to expanding diversity in STEM education and the STEM workforce. Other UM Amherst social impact-related programs of note include Sustainable UMass, providing opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to engage in sustainable living practices, and IMPACT, a service-learning residential academic program in which first-year students engage in off-campus community service activities.

North Carolina

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Community engagement and looking out for the well-being of students and employees highlight life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Socially-minded programs include the University Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which sponsors numerous projects and events. Examples include: outreach programs for middle and high school students such as Carolina Conversations, promoting campus/community discourse on political ideology, identity, race, and other important inclusion issues. In regard to faculty and staff, UNC employees have access to a comprehensive package of support benefits through the Office of Human Resources, including work, life and wellness programs, such as child and elder care resources, campus fitness facilities, confidential counseling, and low-interest emergency loans.

5 Ways You Can Make a Social Impact as a Student

Through the policies and programs described above, colleges and universities are affecting social change on their campuses, in their surrounding communities, and beyond. As a student, you’ll still need to take the initiative when it comes to creating your own positive social impact. Here a just a few of the things you can do:

Enhance your degree with social impact courses

Regardless of area of study or degree level, college students today can enhance their academic experiences – and career prospects – by adding one or several social impact-related courses to their class schedule. Programs and courses with the specific “social impact” designation are most often offered by college and university business schools or departments. Examples of course titles include Social Entrepreneurship, Law and Social Values, Impact Investing, and Diversity in Organizations. In some cases, these courses are available exclusively for MBA students or undergrad business majors. Not always, though, so be sure to check. Also, classes need not carry the social impact label to provide you with the particular subject coursework you’re looking for.


  • College course catalogs:
    The first stop on your hunt for social impact courses is your own school. You’ll likely find courses in the specific subjects you’re interest in (environment and sustainability, social justice and equality, diversity and inclusion, etc.). As a plus, these classes may fulfill general education or other elective requirements for your degree program.
  • Social impact-related minor:
    To encourage engagement of its students in social impact issues, a growing number of colleges today are offering full minor programs, like this one from Suffolk University. So, if you’re degree requires fulfilling a minor requirement, consider a social impact program.
  • Online course providers:
    If your college isn’t offering courses in the social impact-related subjects you’re interested in, you’ll likely be able to find them elsewhere. Quality online programs and courses are readily available to practically anyone seeking them, and you may be able to transfer in credits from those courses to satisfy requirements for your degree program. Try searching courses from individual schools (like this one from UCLA Extension), and online course providers, like edX (mentioned above), Coursera, and Udemy.

Be the leader of a social cause

Mahatma Gandhi said: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” College students all around the globe regularly take Gandhi’s words to heart by becoming active participants in any number of social causes, both on their campuses and off. You can, too. Becoming a social impact leader at your school will require a substantial commitment of your time and energy, but you’ll be making a real and positive contribution of the kind Gandhi was talking about. You’ll also distinguish yourself among your peers, which will pay you dividends, both professionally and personally.


  • Campus student clubs and organizations:
    Colleges are full of all types of student clubs and organizations, many of which are focused on expanding student awareness of socially-relevant issues. Two examples of note are University of Michigan’s diversity-focused student organizations and Oregon State University’s sustainability clubs and organizations. Consider joining an established club on your campus, or if one doesn’t exist in the area you’re interested in, start one yourself.
  • 1% For the Planet’s nonprofits list:
    You don’t have to join or found an on-campus club or organization to fight for a just cause. There are tons of nonprofit organizations outside your school’s borders that are waiting for your input. You just have to find the right one. This Nonprofits fighting for social & environmental justice list from 1% For the Planet (a nonprofit itself) is a good place to start your search.
  • How to Start a Nonprofit:
    Not finding a nonprofit that you can really get behind? Consider starting your own. The How to Start a Nonprofit guide from the National Council of Nonprofits will show you how.

Start volunteering

Probably the easiest and quickest way to jump start your social activism is by volunteering for a worthy cause in your local community. And if you’ve never done it before, there’s a good chance you’ll be blown away at the number and variety of organizations nearby that can really use your help, including hospitals, long-term care facilities, retirement homes, homeless shelters, food pantries, animal rescue facilities, libraries, museums, and on and on and on. Another great place to volunteer is your neighborhood public school, where your academic skills will be particularly appreciated. Local volunteer positions also tend to be flexible when it comes to fitting into your busy class schedule. So, what are you waiting for?


  • Campus volunteer centers:
    Lots of colleges today make volunteering easy for students through campus volunteer centers, like this one at the University of California at Santa Cruz. These centers have ongoing relationships with local school districts, nonprofits, and charitable organizations, so they know where help in your community is needed the most.
  • United Way:
    Probably the single best known charitable organization in the world, the UnitedWay is a coalition of more than 1,800 autonomous nonprofits serving over 60 million people worldwide. Its website is a good starting point for finding great volunteer opportunities in your area.
  • Volunteer Search Engines:
    There are other excellent volunteer search engines out there, also, including these from VolunteerMatch and Points of Light. You can check these two organizations for virtual volunteer opportunities, as well.

Go global

Speaking of volunteerism, you don’t have to limit your volunteer work to your campus or local community. There are plenty of schools and nonprofits today that sponsor programs that provide college students with a full-range of participation experience opportunities at locations throughout the U.S. and the world. One example is Northwestern University’s Global Experience Program, a four-year comprehensive program that places select Northwestern undergrads in numerous U.S. and international locations where they identify and apply innovative entrepreneur solutions to challenges facing the communities in which they are living. Another example is Rollins College, which sponsors students in several socially-minded international programs, such as Global Youth Connect which engages students in hands-on training in communities to advocate for human rights and prevent genocide.


  • College study abroad or global engagement programs:
    Many colleges today make finding a global volunteer experience easy through their own programs, like those mentioned above and the University of Michigan’s Global Michigan portal, where students can connect with numerous international volunteer service opportunities.
  • A Broader View Volunteers:
    A Broader View Volunteers is a nonprofit organization that has sponsored humanitarian volunteer programs in developing nations since 2007. It currently sponsors human rights, environmental, teaching, social welfare, and other social impact opportunities for college students and others in 26 countries throughout Asia, Africa, and Central and South America.
  • International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ):
    The IVHQ is another excellent nonprofit providing global socially-conscious volunteer experiences to college students and others at over 40 locations worldwide. The IVHQ is a Certified B Corporation and member of the Volunteer Groups Alliance (VGA).

Become a farmer

OK, not really. What you might consider doing, though, is working at a sustainable campus or local community garden. Campus farms and gardens are (no pun intended) popping up everywhere, providing students the opportunity to get their hands dirty while learning about sustainable food systems, organic urban agriculture, environmentally-friendly growing methods, and more. Two schools with exemplary campus garden programs are George Mason University and the University of Utah. Campus and community gardens also often act as crucial sources of vegetables and greens for local food pantries, homeless shelters, and other needy charitable causes.


  • Your campus garden or office of sustainability:
    The obvious place to start is on your own campus. Check you college website or contact your school’s office of sustainability or agriculture department to see if your school operates its own garden or farm facility.
  • National Agriculture Library – Community Gardening:
    Presented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this Community Gardening website acts as a clearinghouse for useful publications, articles, and other online resources to help groups and individuals create and maintain successful community gardens.
  • Planning a Garden
    Created by the American Community Garden Association and presented by Texas A&M University’s Department of Horticultural Sciences, this informational pamphlet offers an extensive information on how to plan a garden project.