Wednesday, March 26, 2008

National Service

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.'

I'm no hippie, and I like good works, but this stuff really doesn't sit well with me at all.

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.