On this page

Back to top

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.



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