So You Want To Make A Difference: Strong College Options for Public Service
Want personalized (and free) advice while applying to college?
We’re building a free college guidance platform for high school students like you! This means we’ll let you know exactly what and when you should be focusing on things like extracurriculars, college essays, standardized tests, and more. Sign up now to get early access to our platform and get guidance applying to college!
For many high school students, growing up means taking an interest in the big issues. As you expand your horizons, you may find that you’re developing the urge to give back to your community, solve problems you see around you, and generally make the world a better place.
While you’re in high school and college, you’ll have many opportunities to pursue community service and volunteering as extracurricular activities, and you can also be active in your community as an adult during your free time. However, there’s another option as well: devoting your life more directly to helping others through your career or a major commitment alongside your job.
There’s no one right way to make a difference in the world, but if serving others is your driving passion, certain colleges might be a particularly good fit. In this post, we’ll go over some schools and programs that are worth looking into if you intend to pursue public service.
How can I change the world?
People from every field regularly find ways to give back to their communities, provide support for those who need it most, and work for a better world. Different paths toward making a difference require different skills, so no one college major is necessarily the best one for this purpose. However, certain majors and career paths are particularly focused on serving others.
Social work can be an ideal major for students who want to help others face-to-face and directly impact the lives of clients and communities. Public administration and public policy might work particularly well if you’re interested in government and want to shape policy in ways that help others. Other fields, like religious ministry, nursing, public health, or psychology, could also allow you to put in valuable work toward the common good.
If you intend to pursue a career related to public service, you should know that many of the career paths available require a graduate degree and/or additional certifications. If you want to go into fields like medicine, public health, religious ministry, or psychology, you’ll need to account for these extra years of schooling when you’re making plans for the future. However, many colleges also offer interesting programs at the undergraduate level.
Social workers are on the front lines of serving communities on a local and personal level. Often working for governmental or private agencies, they advocate for those who are vulnerable, connect people to important resources, and work to solve individual and community-wide problems.
As a social worker, you might specialize in a particular clientele, such as children or adults with mental health challenges. While you’re in school, you may have access to courses or fieldwork placements that allow you to develop this specialty. With additional training and licensing, social workers can also serve as therapists or take on higher-level administrative and policy-making positions.
Some social workers get their training through Masters of Social Work (MSW) programs, but as you’ll see below, it’s also possible to become a social worker through undergraduate programs, which may go by a number of different names. All of these programs are accredited through the national-level Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which is an important thing to consider when looking for a reputable social work program.
- Fordham University: Includes courses in human rights, social justice, human behavior, and social welfare policy, as well as 600 hours of fieldwork. Particularly flexible in scheduling, with options to attend part-time or on weekends.
- New York University: Students in this program learn about issues like health care, human rights, and law, and must complete 700 hours of fieldwork.
- Rutgers University: Focuses on project-based learning, including team projects and case study projects, as well as fieldwork.
- The Ohio State University: Offers the only Bachelor of Science in Social Work (BSSW) program in the U.S. Partners with the Title IV-E Child Welfare Training Program, which is required to work with a children’s services agency. Requires 450 hours of fieldwork.
- University of Georgia, Athens: A program focused on social justice and the history and philosophy of social work alongside current practices. Requires 560 hours of fieldwork.
- University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign: Offers students the opportunity to take on full-time internships at social work agencies during their senior year of studies.
- University of Pittsburgh: Requires 600 hours of fieldwork and offers concentrations including global studies; African studies; and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies.
- University of Texas, Austin: Students work collaboratively with each other, faculty, and agencies. Requires 480 hours of fieldwork and offers study-abroad programs.
- University of Washington, Seattle: The Bachelor of Arts in Social Welfare (BASW) program focuses on general social work practices and requires 500 hours of fieldwork.
- University of Wisconsin, Madison: Admission to this program is highly competitive, and students are required to complete 512 hours of fieldwork.
Public Policy, Administration, and Service
Another way to make a difference is to get directly involved with government agencies. The field of public policy covers similar ground to political science, but from a different perspective. Instead of studying government policy from the outside, you’ll work behind the scenes to formulate and enact policies, keep public service providers organized, and direct the work of public servants.
It takes a lot of people to make a government run smoothly, so there is a wide range of different career paths available within the field of public service. You could be a city manager, departmental administrator, or other government official on any level, from your town to the national or international stage. With so many options, you’re likely to find one that fits your talents and interests.
Below, we’ve listed some colleges that offer particularly compelling undergraduate programs in public policy and related fields. You also have the option of pursuing graduate studies in the field. Masters of Public Policy (MPP) or Masters of Public Administration (MPA) programs are popular ways of doing so, and some students go on to Ph.D. programs as well.
- California State University, Fullerton: Students focus on the political environment in which public service and supporting functions exist, as well as taking on internships in government offices.
- Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis: Through the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, students can choose to specialize in civic leadership, management, media and public affairs, policy studies, or sustainable management and policy. A certificate in public management is available for students from other majors.
- Michigan State University: The undergraduate program focuses on goals, problems, political processes, and the implementation of public policy. An accelerated joint bachelors/masters program is also available.
- Rutgers University: Offers a BA in public and nonprofit administration, as well as master’s and doctoral degrees, through its School of Planning and Public Policy.
- Stanford University: Offers many public policy courses from an interdisciplinary perspective. In the undergraduate Honors College and practicum sessions, students are able to conduct real policy analyses.
- Texas A&M: Emphasizes joint-degree programs, with a BA/MPA program and interdisciplinary majors available.
- University of Chicago: Students can enter a joint BA/MPP program, or embrace the emerging field of data science by pairing a BA with an MS in Computational Analysis and Public Policy. Either joint-degree program takes five years to complete.
- University of Colorado, Denver: Offers a BA program in Public Service, as well as an MPA program and a dual-degree option that pairs an MPA with another master’s degree.
- University of Kentucky: A BS/MPA dual-degree program is available, and students have the opportunity to do independent research through capstone projects.
- University of Minnesota, Twin Cities: Offers a joint BA/MPP program through its Humphrey School of Public Affairs, as well as masters and doctoral degrees.
- University of Texas, Dallas: Offers a BS program in Public Affairs, as well as a Fast Track BS/MPA program that takes five years to complete.
Community Service-Oriented Colleges
You don’t have to major in a public-service-related field to engage in public service in college and beyond. You can also use your extracurricular activities in college to explore areas of interest, create change in your community, make connections, and potentially even find your life’s work.
Here are a few colleges with notably popular and well-regarded volunteer programs, connections to the larger community and to service organizations, and other opportunities for you to make a difference outside the classroom:
- Brandeis University: Maintains a Department of Community Service as well as the Brandeis Service Corps. Offers student awards based on completing hundreds of hours of community service, as well as a pre-orientation program devoted to social justice.
- Case Western Reserve University: Home of the Mandel Center for Nonprofit Organizations and offers student awards for community service, as well as graduate degrees in nonprofit management.
- Clark University: Offers more than 20 different community service groups and a Community Engagement and Internship Fair where students can learn more about service opportunities.
- College of William and Mary: Alternative Break programs allow students to serve communities abroad, and many local community outreach programs are also available.
- Emory & Henry College: The site of the Appalachian Center for Community Services, which focuses on the economic development of at-risk populations in the local community.
- Loyola University: Recognized by the Peace Corps as a top producer of volunteers among mid-sized colleges. Through the Loyola4Chicago program, students spend regular weekly hours volunteering for local causes.
- Marquette University: Has a particularly strong relationship with the Peace Corps, and maintains a Center for Community Services that drives local initiatives regarding issues like homelessness and hunger.
- Pitzer College: Known for its exceptional level of off-campus student involvement, its students donate over 100,000 service hours annually.
- Stanford University: Through the Woods Institute for the Environment, a sustainability research hub, students can help find solutions to environmental problems.
- Syracuse University: Home of the Mary Ann Shaw Center for Public and Community Service and many service-learning program. Has a particularly strong relationship with Americorps, which offers a wider range of volunteer and paid service opportunities.
- Tufts University: Home to the Tufts Sustainability Collective, which organizes events like the popular Earthfest and works to benefit the world through environmental advocacy and service, as well as other service-learning opportunities.
- Tulane University: 140 academic courses have service-learning components, and all students have to complete public service requirements in order to graduate.
- University of Dayton: Home to many organizations focusing on environmental development and related projects, as well as an undergraduate minor in sustainability, energy, and the environment.
- University of Denver: Hosts organizations such as the Sustainability Council, which leads efforts to make the campus more environmentally friendly, and the Center for Community Engagement.
- Westminster College: The Katherine W. Dunke Center for Civic Engagement offers connections to volunteer programs and civic-engagement activities. Habitat for Humanity is the largest student organization on campus.
Other Paths for Focusing on Others
Again, no one field or career has a monopoly on helping others. You can make a difference in the world through many majors and careers that aren’t listed in this article — you just have to seek out, seize, and even create opportunities to pursue work that’s focused on others.
If you want to get more involved with community service while you’re in college, it’s usually easy to do so. Pretty much every college is home to community service organizations, volunteer programs, and clubs focused on social change. There may even be a central office or student center devoted to connecting students with these opportunities.
If you’re still in high school, you also have many opportunities to participate and lead from where you are.
Check out these posts for more information on what you can do to help others in high school, how to come up with independent service projects, and how community service can impact your college applications:
Are you currently mired in planning for college and worried about the complexities of college applications? Never fear — CollegeVine’s experienced mentors can help you build your list of colleges, guide you in perfecting your application, and answer the many questions you’ll have throughout the process. For more information about the services we offer, visit the CollegeVine College Application Guidance Program on our website.
Want more college admissions tips?
We'll send you information to help you throughout the college admissions process.