Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Every election year, we start to get proposals for various national service programs as ways to pay for college. The basic idea, though the details always vary, is that graduating high school seniors will work for the government for a year or two in a sort of domestic peace corps arrangement, doing fine and worthy things while accruing voucher credits to be used for college tuition. It's usually presented as some sort of 'rights/responsibilities' tradeoff, with the clear implication that opposition to such a plan could only be based on hippie-like narcissism and/or opposition to all things good. It's a particular favorite of centrist Democrats, since it allows them to connect financial aid to 'worthiness.'
First off, it doesn't recognize the reality of who college students are. The picture people paint when they discuss these programs is of a sheltered, overentitled seventeen-year-old who needs some real-world seasoning before moving out to live in dorms and take classes full-time. Those folks exist, but they aren't the majority of students anymore. Students now come in all ages, often with jobs, and often part-time. Many of them have family and/or local obligations. The students most capable of taking advantage of programs like these are generally the students who are most advantaged anyway.
There's also the annoying fact that the wealthier folk would be able to opt out. So in addition to all the other advantages of wealth, they'd also get started on their careers earlier in life. Those lost earning years matter, especially with the move to defined-contribution pensions. Lost years of compounding returns matter quite a bit. (This is a little-noted but major implication of the shift from defined-benefit to defined-contribution plans. Under the old style pensions, what mattered was what you made in the last few years of your career. Under the new style, what matters most is how early you start, since compounding is the name of the game. With educational requirements ratcheting up, newbies start later than they used to. Add a couple more years of opportunity cost with national service, and it gets even worse.)
And there's the sheer drudgery of much of the work. My recollection of high school – your mileage may vary – involves a lot of frustration, and a palpable eagerness to step up to the academic big leagues. Adding a year or two of soup-kitchen duty or trash pickup or helping old ladies across the street would be demotivating, to put it mildly. As the apocryphal saying goes, community service is something you're sentenced to. Besides, the idea of interrupting your math sequence for a couple of years, then jumping right into calculus, strikes me as, well, nuts. The same holds true for anything sequential and memory-based, like foreign languages. I don't even know how athletics fit into this.
I've done my share of drudgery. I've attended parking lots, washed dishes in diners, tested piston rings, stocked groceries, picked up the photocopier tan, temped, served food in cafeteria lines, and even stacked bags of ice in a freezer. But those were all short-term gigs, and they all involved at least some level of choice. (Admittedly, more choices would have been nice...) And anybody who thinks that living on the East Coast on ten thousand dollars a year in the 1990's was easy hasn't tried it. This isn't about dodging work, or living in Mom's basement and playing video games.
The message that national service programs send strikes me as dangerous. The implication seems to be that rich kids can just jump right into higher ed and start moving up the ladder, but the rest of us have to do our time first. It's a sort of penance for not having wealthy parents. I know our society worships money, but there should be some kind of limits. It implicitly defines higher education as a purely private good, which I reject out of hand. (This isn't just the perspective of a loony liberal, either. If you've ever been to Chamber of Commerce lunches, you know you could start a drinking game based on how many times you hear the phrase “educated workforce.”) If we're the slightest bit serious about economic opportunity, or competing in the global economy, or preserving and exploring the cultures of the world, or retraining displaced workers, or giving disaffected high school kids something to shoot for, or – heaven forbid – fostering creativity for its own sake, we shouldn't put up more obstacles to higher ed. We should clear them away. If you really want to do a national service, improve the high schools.
My proposal? Streamline and increase financial aid, strengthen community colleges as academic starting points – since they're the most accessible to people of every age, income level, and family situation, improve the transferability of credits, reduce the reliance on loans, and recognize in a serious way that a highly educated population is a public good, worthy of support with public resources. Drop the insulting and paternalistic proposals for indentured servitude, and make it possible for people to pursue the education best for them when it makes sense for them to do it.
None of that is terribly original, and none of it is easy, either. There may be better ways. But the animating principles – freedom of choice, education as a public good, and respect for people's different life paths – strike me as fundamental. National service proposals manage to mangle all three.
The key advantage to national service is that it creates opportunities for young people in our far too divided society to meet people from other worlds. They (especially the more privileged among them, but also the not so privileged) might to feel part of something bigger than their own little corner of things.
I mean sure, you can have some sort of GI/National Service benefits afterwards, but that's not the purpose. Or it shouldn't be. And we have enough needs -- infrastructure, human etc. that there is plenty of work to go around.
It's also ageist-- I could only support it if everyone had to do it. Put it on the retirees and let them meet other people.
And it's bad for women because it takes away two crucial years of establishing a career before having children. I really can't say how much I loathe these proposals.
That said, when I think about the friends of mine who did (or considered doing) ROTC or Teach for America, they tended to be middle-class kids whose parents wouldn't (a fair number of these existed, and yet financial aid forms connect you to your parents whatever your relationship to their bank account into your 20s) or couldn't afford to pay for their college, and so those programs offered them a way to do it without having to go into massive amounts of debt while working and going to school full time. It gave them the option of being able to go away to school as opposed to having to live at home with their parents. In short, it wasn't the most privileged people I knew who took advantage of those programs, but people who were in the gap between me (grants and scholarships, a teensy bit of federally subsidized work study, work in the summer when I did not take classes, and only a tiny amount of subsidized federal loans made my dreams of going away to college and studying full time a reality) and students whose parents had socked away money to send their children to college since their children were born. So the appeal of these programs, I think, is NOT for the lower income students who go to CCs or to a 4-year that is local (returning students, students with family obligations that keep them local, etc., students who are only attending school part time), for lower income students who get decent financial aid and scholarship support, or for wealthy students who need to be tourists in soup kitchens to learn how the other half lives.
Instead, I think they're for the students who fall in between those two poles. For that middle range of students, such programs could potentially cut time to degree (they wouldn't need to bartend or wait tables on the side to pay to live in the dorms or for their books or whatever), could allow them the opportunity to have a college experience that they wouldn't otherwise have (living away instead of living at home), and could offer a way for them to return on the investment that has been made in them, even if that investment wasn't technically (emphasis on technically here) "need" based. The possibility that this could shorten time to degree means that your argument about retirement doesn't hold water, and also if students didn't emerge with debt, that couple of years in the field would be less detrimental than the trade-off of, conservatively, 30K in loans.
Now, would such programs have to be *very carefully* implemented in order for them to be successful on all levels - for students, for universities/colleges, and for the community? Yes. Are such programs a substitute for financial aid? Not at all. They'd have to be a supplement to financial aid, and I agree that financial aid needs to be streamlined and increased. So my vision is a Utopian one that will likely never come to pass, in terms of how I think such programs would work. But I think to dismiss them out of hand, well, I'm not sure what is gained by doing that. It seems like an unnecessary way of limiting our thinking about how college can connect to the broader social world that students enter when they're done.
If the goal is to foster a habit of community service, the required community service needs to be across the board and tied to public school funding (The children of the rich in private schools need this too, but I can't think of any way to shame the schools into doing it). Kindergarten is not too soon to start. Many people could use a healthy dose of compassion, and the best way to get that is to start young and make it a natural part of learning--for everyone--not just the poor. They already know what it's like to be poor.
Thinking more deeply, this could also be one of the ways our country makes poor people (I just can't say economically disadvantaged--having been there, it sticks in my throat) atone for the economic sin of being poor. The service gap is a way of marking them, in the same way some school districts mark students who receive free lunches be making them announce it each day in order to receive the food. What should be a step up and a help turns into a public division.
1. It must be universal.
2. The work must be meaningful.
3. The work must be compensated fairly and adequately.
If we can't do those thiree things, then national service becomes an example of a work levee, such as existed in the middle ages. And to that, I would say, "NJo, and no thanks."
I attempted to do national service when I finished school, through TeachAmerica or a similar program, or through AmeriCorps generally. I was unable to. I was 26 and married when I finished my education, and HARDLY ANY programs would take a married couple, and NOT A SINGLE ONE would promise to place you where your spouse lived. (And my husband's career was established.) Many had residency requirements that involved living communally with other volunteers, and required you be single, or living within particular city limits.
In short, they made it literally impossible for a young married person to participate. I had already lived apart from my husband for the first 18 months of our marriage while I finished school. I was not going to wait two whole extra years to start my married life because national service programs are wildly inflexible and unwilling to even discuss the issue.
I think national service sounds like a good idea in theory, but students already wait until they're 22 to start their "real" lives if they go straight through high school and college. Longer if they take a break, or pursue higher higher ed. It's unfairly burdensome to demand we spend ANOTHER year or two years waiting to start our lives because someone's decided my generation is inadequately engaged in society. (And I volunteered more than 200 hours last calendar year, thank you very much.)
1. the notion that "everyone should go to college"
2. the notion that post secondary education is a "right"
3. the notion that "national service" actually serves the public good
1. Under this worldview, the choice we make as a society is to NOT have a smart, capable, fully employed tradesman- in lieu of a smart, capable, unemployed/underemployed debt ridden college graduate. Community Colleges (in their "Trade School" role) used to fill a vital role in serving the needs of society and industry; now we must do without or import our tradesman from other countries.
2. The economics of this assumption will drive us in one of two directions. The "European" direction will lead to rationing and privilege. The opposite direction leads to "the tragedy of the commons" and the further loss in value of education (both intrinsically as quality drops and extrinsically as the market value drops).
3. It's the "Sports Referee Principle." At least half the population will disagree with every single form of national service offered. Do we want "working on re-election campaigns" to count as national service? How about "voter registration drives?" Naaaaaaah I don't think so. When dollars are forcibly extracted from real human beings to pay for things with which those human beings strongly disagree, and for which (arguably) government has no proper role, then it crosses the line into "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" country.
A secondary note on #3: ya know we used to have chain gangs performing all sorts of valuable "service" (clearing brush, paving roads, etc.). If I remember correctly there were a lot of problems with this . . . not the least of which was the "anticompetitive nature" of how the work details were assigned to economically reward/punish players in various free market enterprises.
It'd be even neater if the program taught at least some useful skill. That includes things like construction...never underestimate the value of being able to work on your own house! To counter intellectual stagnation, the program could offer low-cost college coursework at night to those interested, or encourage intellectual development in different ways. It would be up to the student to take advantage of the offerings, but then, they have to take advantage of college, too.
Several comments here seem to find national service acceptable only if it's compulsory. For me, that's weird. Can you explain your thinking?
In this sense Teach for America or similar programs are quite different from the pre-college national service because (in theory) they do give college graduates job experience relevant to their field. In that sense, they hopefully would not penalize the careers of students who choose to participate. There are similar programs of debt-forgiveness for law school graduates that encourage entry into legal clinics or public service work.
No workable system (meaning one that could be defended in a debate) had an opt-out clause for the rich, famous, or devious. Both Karl Rove and Bill Clinton would have had to serve a year or so, and you couldn't cut short a part-time obligation like Bush's TxANG service. Your 365 days in Vietnam would be treated the same as 365 days in Appalachia, both after a training period.
IMHO, a major flaw in the Democratic proposals is the lack of any reference to military service to the country as an option.
Side comments: It does not raise a civil liberties issue any more than the draft did, and that was always ruled constitutional provided there were alternatives to accommodate religious freedom. It would not be ageist if every 18 year old did it, as was the norm for the draft. Education is not a right guaranteed by the constitution; only equal access to it is guaranteed. Even K-10 schooling is not a right, it is a legal requirement! Only grades 10-12 are a right, and then only at local option. After that you are on your own.
Economics comment: The ratio of taxpayers to college students has a lot to do with the cost structure. As a larger fraction of that age group go to college, the burden increases. Efficiency issues (oft discussed here) then come to bear as well along with the job market for teachers and researchers. IMHO, part of the cost shift has resulted from the need to fund universities with *research* money, reducing teaching loads and raising salaries, not just state dollars.
Sorry to run long....
And it's tough to do service you want to do at 22 (after college), but at 18 it would be even tougher.