Study Reveals Out-of-Classroom Experiences in High School Link to Lifelong “Service Identity” and Behaviors, Sapience Leadership Study Reveals

Survey of Over 2,300 Catholic High School Graduates Finds Character- and Values-Based Shared Experiences Correlate to Civic/Service Mindsets

Results Identify Four Building Blocks of Effective Character Education

PHILADELPHIA--()--The secret to building a “service identity” during the formative teenage years that lasts long into adulthood might be found in the shared social experiences that occur outside the classroom of America’s Catholic schools. A new study shows that a unique mix of values- and character-based education and experiences is linked to a higher likelihood of community service and civic engagement during adulthood.

The study, conducted as part of doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s (UPenn) Graduate School of Education, was led by Dr. Patricia Boyle, Chief Strategist of Sapience Leadership LLC, an independent company of UPenn’s Penn Center for Innovation (PCI). The research surveyed 2,332 graduates of 18 Philadelphia-area Catholic high schools, across seven decades – from the 1950s to 2010s. It’s one of the largest studies to define the qualities of a “service identity” and to explore the determinates of character beliefs and behaviors in a defined population over multiple decades. The study defines a “service identity” as a conscious and enduring mindset that transcends one’s sense of self, circumstance, abilities and social barriers to better the lives of those around them.

The survey data, supported by one-on-one and focus group interviews, were compared to data sets from national databases to explore whether participants were more or less prone to a “service identity” and behaviors versus those of average Americans. The findings showed a significant difference.

The study found that sample participants were significantly more likely to have a “service identity” and be civically engaged, give back to their communities and demonstrate gratitude, compared to national averages. Of the sample, 63% reported being active, “often or occasionally,” in service or leadership activities while in high school, and as adults, 51% of participants reported still being active in volunteer capacities and/or service roles from 2-hours-per-month to full-time.

“An exciting door in the study of character-building has been opened. While this type of study does not prove that values-based experiences directly cause increased civic and social engagement, it clearly shows that the two issues are closely related,” said Boyle.

“With this study, we appear to be seeing the influence of those instructional hours that occur beyond the structured curriculum and immediate classroom walls, in driving a significant and sustainable ‘service identity’ and behaviors. The results suggest the rising importance of non-cognitive and social-emotional skills in driving more morally responsible, civically engaged teens and adults.”

For baseline comparison data, the research accessed multiple federal databases, such as the Voting and Registration supplement of the U.S. Population Survey, to establish mean benchmarks on voting, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics for volunteering community service and charitable activities of representative samples of Americans. The data was linked to the survey sample of graduates from Catholic high schools in the Philadelphia area spanning seven decades. Sample participants answered questions about their perceptions and activities related to civic engagement and community service. To minimize bias, the research removed from the survey all intentional references and phrasing related to religion, Catholicism, and Christian-teaching.

Values- and Character-Based Experiences, Not Formal Religion Classes, Create A Service Mindset

The study found a strong correlation between people’s “shared social experiences” in Catholic high school and an increased commitment to service. When asked to identify the source of their service mindset, most participants credited the experiences and lessons learned outside the classroom—less the religious education itself—for achieving an increased predisposition to civic engagement in adulthood.

Older Graduates More Likely to Be Civically Engaged Than Younger Generations

In comparing age groups, those that graduated from high school during the 1980s and 1990s were the most active civically, with 57% and 58%, respectively, reporting engagement in their regular service work. The remaining decade cohorts, examined in aggregate, reported current service activity levels within seven percentage points of the all-cohort number, with the exception of the two most recent decades, of those having graduated in the 2000s and 2010s. They reported civic activity of 38% and 31%, respectively.

“Though the results show more individuals from older generations to be civically active and to volunteer their time as adults,” said Boyle. “Those that graduated in the 2000s and 2010s were actually more active as students compared to their older counterparts.

“Additionally, time constraints placed on those that graduated in the 2000s and 2010s, either from work, raising a family, or otherwise, may limit those individuals’ capacity to be more civically engaged than those older generations who may be retired or no longer have children in the home.”

Four Building Blocks of a “Service Identity”

For educators and community leaders, the study advances the current thinking on character- and values-based education. A pattern analysis of the study data suggests four building blocks of effective character education. For families, schools, communities or countries, these building blocks play an important role in developing the next generation of a civically engaged society. They are:

  1. Experiential – Programs that require active participation and involvement with minimal rote instruction emphasizing individual and group decision-making and problem-solving
  2. Aspirational – Activities that embed relatable and respected role models that continually demonstrate a service-driven perspective, beliefs and behaviors
  3. Cross Cultural – Programs that intentionally bring together individuals with varied backgrounds, cultural traditions, gender, skills and commitment levels under a common goal, task or mission
  4. Social – Programs that leave room for peer-to-peer dialog, socializing, down-time and bonding in the context of helping others

“Much of today’s standard education places a significant emphasis on one’s personal ability to achieve over the advancement or greater good of the classroom or the community. With individuals who have a ‘service identity,’ that is not the case,” said Boyle. “The study findings showed that all four building blocks played a key role in the creating the service identity among Catholic secondary school graduates; and that they influenced the greater likelihoods of community service and civic engagement during adulthood.”

More information on the study, including methodology, research design, data and additional findings.

About Patti Boyle, Ed.D., MBA

Graduate, Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership, UPenn
Founder/President, Boyle Consulting Group
Chief Strategist, Sapience Leadership, PCI
Adjunct Professor, Temple University, Klein College, Graduate Program
Board of Directors, Head of Strategic Planning, J.W. Hallahan Catholic High School for Girls

A lifelong proponent of education, Dr. Boyle holds her doctoral degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Educational and Organizational Leadership, graduating summa cum laude with a dissertation distinguished with highest honors. Her 25-year career track record spans multiple facets of the evolving technology, finance, education and leadership spaces.

In 2012, she founded Boyle Consulting Group with the mission to build sustainable growth platforms for global enterprises, growth-stage national firms and leading non-profits. Her firm specializes in strategic planning, organizational culture, leadership development, branding and marketing.

Combining strategic and tactical support, Boyle’s award-winning planning and research models helped multi-faceted organizations achieve accelerated growth in expanding markets. Prior to founding Boyle Consulting Group, she served in leadership roles for global advertising agencies, managing marketing for organizations including Deloitte, where she led the launch of its independent consulting entity in 22 countries and 8 foreign languages. She previously led the successful market launch of an innovative technology offering for Verizon and introduced a game-changing wealth platform for SEI in the UK market.

Sapience Leadership LLC

Sapience is a newly-formed company of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Center for Innovation. The consultancy is an independent company in the PCI Ventures’ UPSTART Portfolio and a community member of Best for PHL.


Joe McIntyre
215-564-3200 X112


Joe McIntyre
215-564-3200 X112