30 Colleges Making Their Communities Stronger

Author: Maxim Sorokopud / Reviewed by: Melissa Anderson / Reading level: Grade 10

Key Takeaways:

  • Colleges play a crucial role in improving communities by training individuals for skilled job roles and implementing community-focused initiatives.
  • The featured colleges on the list have demonstrated evidence of positively impacting their communities and show a commitment to future improvement measures.
  • Auburn University is #1 in our roundup, followed by Kansas State University.

Colleges function to improve the world in many ways. The most common means of improvement is training people to fulfill a wide range of skilled job roles. Colleges also have the opportunity to improve the towns, cities, and states that house their campuses. Only some can show that these actions have resulted in major community benefits. The schools on this list are all strong examples.

When it comes to colleges improving their communities, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, each location and community has its own unique set of circumstances. This ranking has sought to consider a range of improvement initiatives for inclusion. The main cause for inclusion is evidence that the college’s efforts have positively impacted their community. Those with the highest rankings can prove they have implemented many improvement measures.

Featured Programs

Another key consideration for inclusion is demonstrating a commitment to future improvement measures. Naturally, communities will always face new and evolving challenges. Some colleges are dedicated to meeting these new challenges when they arise. Others refrain from adapting their engagement. Those committed to future community support in their strategic plans and securing funding rank higher.

Any college listed is a good choice for a student seeking a college focused on community improvement. However, it’s also possible that none of the following colleges are right for you. If that’s the case, then this ranking can still be a vital resource in your college search. Each entry summarizes what the college is doing to support its community. These have been included for you to compare and contrast with your own college options. Any college with similar initiatives is well worth attending.

Methodology

Potential colleges were identified through various sources that indicate community support and development. After identifying these schools, we conducted further research. We assessed the breadth of community support actions the colleges were conducting. This research formed the final basis for inclusion.

The ranking criteria for this list are as follows:

  • Evidence of providing a range of community support/development initiatives
  • Evidence of future commitment to community support/development initiatives
  • Evidence of historical community development initiatives
  • Innovation in providing community support initiatives
  • Levels of funding gained for community development initiatives
  • Aggregated mentions on the methodology lists

The colleges, from 30 to one, are as follows:

30. University of Minnesota, Crookston

Crookston, Minnesota

Website

The University of Minnesota, Crookston, is home to the Veden Center for Rural Development. It currently runs a number of programs that benefit the community. These include:

  • Building connections between rural and urban businesses
  • Accelerating the business prospects of veterans

It also leads research, training, and webinars to benefit its surrounding rural community. In early 2024, the college also announced that it had been awarded the Carnegie Elective Classification for Community Engagement. ICMA highlights the University of Minnesota, Crookston, for engaging with its rural community.

29. Gordon College

Wenham, Massachusetts

Website

Many student-led local outreach groups at Gordon College proactively serve the local community. This includes groups that:

  • Provide emotional support to homeless people
  • Encourage social interactions with children and young adults on the autism spectrum
  • Build relationships with people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease

The college’s music department runs various programs for both children and adults. These include music-making workshops. The Princeton Review named Gordon the nation’s 19th-best college for the relationship between its students and their community.

28. Wheaton College

Wheaton, Illinois

Website

The Center for Urban Engagement at Wheaton College has a mission. The goal is “to promote just, sustainable, and flourishing urban communities through the academic study of cities and transformational experiences of urban life.” One way that the college achieves this is by having students spend a semester living in Chicago. The college also runs many children’s activities, including:

  • Summer camps
  • Spring break staycations
  • Access to its astronomical observatory

Its Community School of the Arts offers free concerts and outreach events. The Princeton Review names Wheaton students the third best in building strong relationships with the local community.

27. College of William & Mary

Williamsburg, Virginia

Website

The College of William & Mary provides grants of up to $2,000 for students to participate in community development work. It also runs an Active Citizens Conference on an annual basis. It encourages better community development activity. The college’s School of Education also provides a range of community support, such as:

  • Running family counseling sessions
  • Administering the Virginia division of Project HOPE for educating homeless children
  • Providing school-based support services

U.S. News notes that in the 2022-2023 academic year 550 students participated in community development initiatives run by College of William & Mary’s Civic & Community Engagement department.

26. Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering

Needham, Massachusetts

Website

In 2023, Olin College of Engineering Professor Sarah Spence Adams adapted her recent sabbatical experience. She developed a course to develop STEM workshops for low-income elementary and middle school children. This work aligns with the college’s 2022-2027 strategic plan. This is summarized with the phrase “Engineering for Everyone.” The college announced the opening of an impact studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts, named The Mirror. Its goal is to extend its work to students of local schools and community organizations. Before this, the college had managed community engagement endeavors. One works with Massachusetts farmers. They created an effective, low-cost system for adjusting climate control systems in greenhouses. The Princeton Review considers Olin to have the 18th best relationship between its students and hometown.

25. University of Houston

Houston, Texas

Website

The University of Houston aims to “enhance the quality of life in low-to-moderate income communities throughout the Houston region through design, research, education and practice.” Its Community Design Resource Center has partnered with over a dozen community-focused organizations. One example of its work is FLOODS, which developed four Houston neighborhoods after Hurricane Harvey. Another major community support project at the college is the Third Ward Initiative. It has focused on improving the Third Ward community of Houston since 2018. This initiative has provided services like:

  • Dental services
  • Child mentoring programs
  • Senior citizen support

ICMA features University of Houston for its Stimulated Urban Renewal Through Entrepreneurship program.

24. Texas Christian University

Fort Worth, Texas

Website

Pre-health students at TCU can apply for Experiential Projects to Impact the Community Grants for up to $2,500. Since this grant’s launch in 2020, students have used it for initiatives such as:

  • Decreasing social isolation within retirement communities
  • Creating a junior STEM scholar mentoring program in high schools

The college’s Public Service Consulting Corps Program offers up to $1,200 each semester. Students must take part in 150 hours of volunteer work. Faculty and staff members can also apply for grants to implement service-learning opportunities into courses. The Princeton Review considers TCU students to have the eighth-best relationship with their hometown.

23. Georgia Southern University

Statesboro, Georgia

Website

A wide range of centers at Georgia Southern University conduct work that benefits the Georgia community. A prime example is the Center for Wildlife Education. Considering the human environmental impact, it engages with over 17,500 children and adults yearly. Other centers that aid the community include:

  • The Center for Rehabilitation and Independent Living
  • The Junior Achievement Discovery Center

In past years, students at the college have logged over 47,000 hours of community service. U.S. Economic Development Administration partners with GSU to fund regional development initiatives.

22. Western Washington University

Bellingham, Washington

Website

The Western Washington University runs the Sustainability, Equity, & Justice Fund. It provides grants over $35,000 for student-focused projects that support the community. In the 2022-2023 academic year, WWU’s Sustainability Engagement Institute collaborated with several partners on projects helping the surrounding community prepare for extreme heat, wildfires, and more. Other departments within the college that support the community include the:

  • The Small Business Development Center
  • The Center for Economic and Business Research
  • The Morse Leadership Institute

U.S. News also notes the work-study opportunities from WWU’s Center for Community Learning.

21. Emory University

Atlanta, Georgia

Website

In 2021, Emory University launched a new community engagement strategy. The deans of three different schools leading initiatives in three areas, namely:

  • Social and economic mobility
  • Health and well-being
  • Arts, science, and cultural enrichment

However, the college had maintained many community outreach programs before this new strategy. For example, the college has been running the Emory Cares Day of Service since 2003. Its 20th event in 2023 focuses on various activities, including:

  • Cleaning up a nature preserve
  • Providing school supplies and toys for foster care children

In early 2024, Emory received another boost thanks to a new partnership with the City of Atlanta. They plan to improve the local technology ecosystem, especially with artificial intelligence. In the 2022 to 2023 academic year, ES’s Center for Civic and Community Engagement oversaw over 13,200 hours of community service. They worked with a network of over 136 community partners. Their community building and social change fellows program also offers students a stipend of up to $3,000. They participate in 10-week summer projects with a community focus. The Princeton Review considers the relationship between Emory students and the college’s hometown to be the 14th best in America.

20. Mississippi State University

Mississippi State, Mississippi

Website

For over 40 years, MSU has benefited its home state through the John C. Stennis Institute of Government & Community Development. Some of its current programs include:

  • Tracking the impressions of various Mississippi towns by first-time visitors
  • Building economic development support networks in specific communities
  • Providing basic education and training that address impediments to economic progress

The college also runs the Center for Government and Community Development. It runs numerous educational programs. Some of these include programs including:

  • Improve access to healthy, locally grown food
  • Revitalize town and city downtowns

MSU also partners with the U.S. Economic Development Administration. Together, they provide funding for local community development efforts.

19. University of Michigan

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Website

Michigan Medicine, the academic medical center of UM, provides care to 40% of its county’s residents. The college’s Edward Ginsberg Center also maintains community partnerships with over 340 organizations. This is “through consultations, faculty and staff workshops, grant awards, and matchmaking.” One of this center’s current initiatives is gathering data on:

  • Using of restraints in juvenile justice centers
  • Enacting laws that prevent the usage of such restraints in these environments

Times Higher Education notes that UM’s research income has boosted its hometown’s economic development.

18. University of California, Merced

Merced, California

Website

In fall 2023 alone, 669 volunteers from UC, Merced participated in one-time service opportunities such as:

  • Lake clean-ups
  • Restorative Justice Conference

During that time volunteers also committed over 11,500 hours to long-term community support projects. They include child mentorship programs. The college also runs the “largest labor center serving a rural region in the US,” the UC Merced Community and Labor Center. Some of this center’s initiatives include:

  • Farmworker Health Study
  • UC Merced Farmworker Health Research Conference

U.S. News notes that the college’s community engagement center works with 25-40 community organizations annually.

17. Clemson University

Clemson, South Carolina

Website

Since 2001, the Community Research and Design Center at Clemson University has conducted significant work, which includes:

  • River corridors
  • Transportation modeling
  • Alternative land use

Other departments within the college that have a major focus on community development include:

  • The Division of Community Engagement, Belonging and Access
  • The Office of College Preparation & Outreach.

It also has the college-wide initiative Building Healthy Communities. It aims to boost the well-being of all South Carolina residents. Additionally, in April 2023, the college launched Clemson Elevate, its latest strategic plan. One of this plan’s primary goals is to build on its already impressive community service work in South Carolina and beyond. One of the first developments of this plan was the creation of the Division of Community, Engagement, Belonging, and Access. The college stated that its scope was to be developed throughout 2024. The Princeton Review named Clemson University students to have the fifth-best relationship with their hometown of any college in America.

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16. Carnegie Mellon University

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Website

In the 2022-2023 academic year alone, CMU students “volunteered over 63,000 hours, raised over $122,000 for local food security, and mentored over 6,000 high school students in computer science.” In 2023, the college also enacted the Prison Education Project. Two faculty members and 15 students travel to a Pennsylvania state penitentiary. They go each week to enact an educational course. In 2023, ite also provided $250,000 for Pittsburgh to renovate its Four Mile Run Playground. It also runs a K-12 outreach program that encourages STEM learning. Times Higher Education highlights Carnegie Mellon University’s role in improving Pittsburgh’s economy.

15. Agnes Scott College

Decatur, Georgia

Website

In 2023, the US Government gave Agnes Scott College $1 million in funding. Much of this is committed to strengthening ties with Georgia-based community partners. Since 2016, over 2,000 college members have taken part in over 43,300 hours of community engagement activities. They operated the Decatur and Atlanta regions under the Scotties Serve program alone. Their efforts range from aiding food security to preserving nature. Scotties Serve is managed by the Gue Pardue Hudson Center for Leadership, Engagement and Service. The center also also runs the Impact Peer Leaders program. The Princeton Review named ASC students the eighth-best relationship with their hometown.

14. University of Denver

Denver, Colorado

Website

University of Denver students in the 2022 academic year put in more than 1 million hours of community service. This was done through the Center for Community Engagement to Advance Scholarship and Learning. It also awarded $16,737 to faculty members to pursue community-engaged teaching. However, it must be noted that some of this work occurred outside of Colorado. Work that focused on the local community included:

  • Providing meals to people who are food insecure
  • Providing an advocacy curriculum to children

This center provides students with up to $3,000 to pursue community-engaged research. The Princeton Review called the relationship between UD students and Denver residents to be the 21st best of any college in America.

13. Vanderbilt University

Nashville, Tennessee

Website

In early 2024, Vanderbilt University announced the Community Engagement Collaboration Fund. It provides up to $7,500 of funding for staff and faculty initiatives that partner with organizations that are local to the campus. In late 2023, the college also launched a new collaboration with Bridgestone Americas. Representatives from both organizations discuss potential projects relating to various issues, such as:

  • Business development
  • Supply chain management

Currently, the college maintains community partnerships with a range of organizations, including:

  • The National Museum of African American Music
  • The Tennessee Performing Arts Center
  • The Nashville Public Education Foundation

The Princeton Review named Vanderbilt University students the seventh-best relationship with their hometown.

12. Colgate University

Hamilton, New York

Website

Colgate University runs around 45 summer camps supporting the Upstate New York community. Also, the Max A. Shacknai Center for Outreach, Volunteerism, and Education oversees 22,000 hours of volunteer service every year. One example of this volunteer work is a partnership formed in 2023. The music therapy nonprofit that provides music therapy to children with cancer. The college also has a long history of community support. One prominent example is the Partnership for Community Development. Since 1998, it provided $630,000 in funding for initiatives for small business development. This, in turn, leveraged over $1.5 million from the private sector, foundations, and the government. The college also maintains a community garden. It allow students and others to explore organic gardening principles. The strategic plan for the third century of the college’s existence commits to continue to support its hometown. An affordable housing creation initiative, International Economic Development Council states that Colgate University invested approximately $30 million into the downtown of its home city between 2000 and 2020.

11. Colby College

Waterville, Maine

Website

Since 2001, Colby College has run a program that pairs students with local youth for mentoring purposes. In the present day, this program engages over 300 student mentors. The college also has over 70 community partnerships that engage students with volunteer work. The college’s community engagement efforts gained a new base of operations. In 2018, the $25 million Bill and Joan Alfond Main Street Commons opened its doors. Colby also worked with organizations to revitalize the downtown of its home city, Waterville. This work includes restoring historic buildings. International Economic Development Council notes that Colby had spent $82 million redeveloping Waterville’s downtown..

10. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Website

Since 1999, the Carolina Center for Public Service at UNC at Chapel Hill has managed a wide range of community development projects. In the 2022 school year alone, the center experienced significant student participation. The Buckley Public Service Scholars saw students participate in almost 74,000 hours of publicly engaged work. It includes:

  • Elementary school mentoring
  • Bringing arts to the public

Aince 2011, the college has also run the Development Finance Initiative. It has partnered with over 85 local communities. This initiative has successfully gained over $1 billion in private investments. These funds go to improve North Carolina communities. The UNC at Chapel Hill also partners with the U.S. Economic Development Administration to fund community development projects.

9. University of Colorado, Boulder

Boulder, Colorado

Website

In August 2023, UC Boulder faculty gained a five-year National Science Foundation grant. The $2 million are used to raise awareness of climate change and promote STEM diversity. It will do this by working with state high school students to create exhibits that will tour the Americas. In June 2023, the USDA awarded another faculty member a four-year $650,000 grant to study the impact of grassland fueled by climate change. It involves partnering with the City of Boulder Open Space. Overall, the college has led over 110 community outreach programs in the state of Colorado, which have served over 244,000 people. This community commitment has been a major focus of the institution since 1912. To encourage further community development, faculty members can apply to gain up to $5,000 seed funding to develop projects focusing on improving Southeastern Colorado. U.S. News notes that University of Colorado, Boulder is leading a program that educates Coloradans about civics and democracy.

8. University of Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Website

From 2022 to 2023, the University of Pittsburgh’s community impact included spending $161 million on vendors from Pittsburgh. It runs 32 programs that benefit 87,918 residents and leads 84,683 service hours. It has committed to supporting neighborhood efforts, including infrastructure and staffing. In late 2023, the college also gained over $1 million in funding. Funding from the Gismondi Foundation supports its local community engagement efforts. The money goes into efforts that allow families to participate in various activities. They include out-of-school-time programs. There is also a program that combines in-school tutoring with Saturday learning-through-play sessions. It is designed to boost reading and math skills. Times Higher Education highlights Pitt as a college that has contributed to the economic revival of its home city.

7. Claflin University

Orangeburg, South Carolina

Website

IIn 2024, Claflin’s Center for Rural and Primary Healthcare gained $1.8 million to expand its CU-DEEP Wellness Initiative. It will see its services reach more individuals than ever before. In 2022, The Innovate Fund invested $15 million for the college to construct an activity center. The center would benefit college students and the Orangeburg community. Estimates stated that over 3,000 community members could benefit from the center’s services. Workforce development initiatives are a key resource on offer. The college also runs the Pathways From Prison Program. The program gives incarcerated people the opportunity to gain degrees. In 2022, the Center for Social Justice gained $500,000 from the Bank of America to enhance the program. Claflin University also partners with the U.S. Economic Development Administration to fund community development initiatives.

6. University of Louisville

Louisville, Kentucky

Website

In late 2023, University of Louisville announced that it had succeeded in gaining two grants from the Health Resources and Services Administration totaling $6.5 million. This funding will be used to increase the access that residents of Kentucky have to health care. In 2023, the college and its partners awarded 15 $100,000 grants. They work to find potential solutions that could improve health equity in Kentucky. Even earlier in 2023, the college also gained almost $1.2 million from the Human Foundation. The goal is to support dietary initiatives to improve heart health among Kentucky communities. It also currently runs over a dozen community engagement programs and initiatives. The Signature Partnership Initiative alone is responsible for significant work that has enhanced “the quality of life and economic opportunity for residents of West Louisville.” It has done this through working with public schools, the government, faith-based organizations, and more. Additionally, the Gheens Community Engagement Mini-Grant Program provides funding of up to $3,000. Faculty, staff, and students who want to pursue work that benefits the community can apply. University of Louisville also partners with the U.S. Economic Development Administration to fund community development initiatives.

5. Bowling Green State University

Bowling Green, Ohio

Website

In 2023, BGSU secured $332,828 in government funding. Funds went toward the Advancing Regional Talent in Smart Technology Enabled Manufacturing project. This project aims to create an ecosystem of smart manufacturing. It offers a range of educational opportunities including:

  • Developing pathways for local jobs at high schools and community colleges
  • Attracting minority and female students to smart manufacturing careers
  • Collaborating with partners and agencies to align programs with local workforce needs

Most of the community development activities are managed by the Center for Regional Development. It focuses on the city of Bowling Green and the entirety of northwest Ohio. One of this center’s primary goals is to boost community health, such as through a partnership with:

  • The Hospital Council of Northwest Ohio
  • ProMedica Health Systems

They implement a research study that decreases the rates of infant mortality. The center benefits from funding from the State of Ohio through the Rural University Program. The college collaborates with:

  • Kent State University
  • Miami University
  • Ohio University

In early 2024, the college also announced that its students had completed nearly 100,000 hours of community service in just over one year. The Center for Regional Development also partners with the U.S Economic Development Administration to fund community initiatives. ICMA highlights Bowling Green State University for its Reimagining Rural Regions Program.

4. University of Minnesota

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Website

In 2018, University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs celebrated its 50th anniversary. In the present day, this center performs a number of important activities within its local community. They run the Minnesota Prison Doula Project. It gives pregnancy and parenting support for incarcerated pregnant women and mothers. They serve the local women’s state prison, Minnesota Correctional Facility – Shakopee, and in correctional facilities across Minnesota. In 2023, the college also gained $10 million in funding. It helps underserved communities in Minnesota and five other states access energy and environmental improvement funding. ICMA highlights University of Minnesota’s Resilient Communities Project. It provides student-engaged learning opportunities through partnerships with local governments. The college also partners with the U.S. Economic Development Administration to support regional economic growth.

3. Washington State University

Pullman, Washington

Website

The College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resources at WSU is a major driver of local community development. Over 4,000 volunteers from this college provide 333,000 hours of community support every single year. In early 2024, this agricultural school succeeded in gaining $2.85 million. It launched a technical assistance provider network that facilitates farmers in applying for and securing loans from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Previous community development initiatives the college has launched include:

  • Initiatives that improve food security
  • Ensure better governance by local, state, federal, and tribal governments

The college’s Student Engagement Services department also runs a center for civic engagement. It empowers students by connecting them with community support initiatives. They range from volunteering to help people in assisted living facilities to book donation opportunities. This department also runs a community engagement summit. Princeton University ranks Washington State University’s students as the 10th best for forming strong relationships with the local community. U.S. Economic Development Administration also partners with the college to fund regional development opportunities.

2. Kansas State University

Manhattan, Kansas

Website

One of the many community improvement initiatives at Kansas State University is the Net Positive Studio. Architecture, planning, and design students and faculty work to provide affordable net-zero housing. They partner with:

  • Habitat for Humanity
  • Manhattan Area Technical College
  • Other local community members

In late 2023, the college launched the Kansas Water Institute. It works to address sustainability and water resource challenges. The college also became one of four institutions to receive the Innovation and Economic Prosperity Award from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. In early 2024, the college also announced that it was collaborating with NetWork Kansas to launch the Kansas Entrepreneurship Challenge. It will provide almost $300,000 to support youth entrepreneurship. Overall, the college’s faculty members have gained $19.2 million in funding for scholarly projects that engage with the Kansas community. Princeton Review ranks Kansas State University as having the best relationship between students and the local community. The U.S. Economic Development Administration partners with the college to support regional economic growth.

1. Auburn University

Auburn, Alabama

Website

The Government & Economic Development Institute at Auburn University traces its routes to 1976. It was founded as the Office of Public Service and Research. The institute launched small business grants and training programs for minority small business entrepreneurs. It also frequently runs training programs for a range of community leaders and hosts entrepreneurship pop-up workshops. Other college divisions have been responsible for community support initiatives. It includes the Rural Health Initiative. RHI has been working to increase access to high-quality and affordable health and wellness care to rural Alabamans since 2020. They also run and a campus kitchen. It aims to minimize food waste and eliminate food insecurity among the Auburn community. Overall, the college gains over $26 million in grants for outreach and extension initiatives per year. Princeton Review considers Auburn University to have the second-best relationship between college students and the local community. The college also partners with the U.S. Economic Development Administration to support regional economic growth.

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