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Obama’s Biggest Initiative of All – Service Learning

Nothing that the Obama administration has discussed thus far – not TARP or the purchase of a trillion dollars in government bonds, not a regional approach to peace negotiations in the Middle East, nor the idea of posting all future budgets on the Internet – has remotely the kind of transformative possibilities or the potential for total disaster of their service learning plan. That sounds incongruous, I know – “service learning” is not the kind of phrase that makes one thinks of tsunami-style social transformation – but in fact the scale of the administration’s proposal in this area is absolutely mind-blowing.

Here are the basic terms of the proposal, as reported on the Obama-Biden web site. “Obama and Biden will set a goal that all middle and high school students do 50 hours of community service a year. They will develop national guidelines for service- learning … Obama and Biden will establish a new American Opportunity Tax Credit that is worth $4,000 a year in exchange for 100 hours of public service a year… Obama and Biden will ensure that at least 25 percent of College Work-Study funds are used to support public service opportunities instead of jobs in dining halls and libraries.”

So every American child starting at around age 11 or so will be required to participate in a national service program for the seven years of middle and high school.  And then comes college.  In college, every student who finds the prospecte of a $4,000 per year grant to his or her family irresistable — that’s $16,000 over four years, $20,000 over five, toward the cost of college — every student in that position will be putting in 100 hours of service work per year, defined (apparently) as work outside of the operations of the college itself. Let’s just focus on that college part for now.  100 hours per year is the equivalent of 3.3 hours per week in a 30-week school year; in other words, it is the equivalent of requiring every college student to add another course (with no homework) to their schedule.  What are the likely effects of such a requirement, spread over 12 million or more college students?

First, some potential benefits. To begin with, this program can be viewed as one of many elements of a general stimulus plan. Giving every college student in America $4,000 a year is an age- and socioeconomic-category-specific way of funneling cash to the middle class. (The lower classes are less likely to show up in college, the wealthy are less likely to find the refundable tax credit irresistible.) According to the U.S. Census, there will be approximately 16 million American college students next year. Let’s arbitrarily assume that 12 million of them will want to take advantage of this program; that’s a $48 billion program of stimulus checks right there, directed at a group about whose economic prospects we have all been very concerned of late. And college students will spend that money, if only on tuition and books . . .but more likely also on pizza and beer.  So in the first place this is very directed, very impact-intensive stimulus spendng.

Presumably, though, the economic benefits are only a part of the story. There is also the hope that the experience of service work will inspire attitudes of idealism and public engagement. (One can even argue that the predictable mobilization of *opposing* political voices will contribute to college students’ democratic participation; a double gain in civic education.) We can hope that a significant number of these students will experience character-shaping events producing a sense of commitment that they will carry forward into the future; numerous studies attest to the fact that experience of political and social activism at a young age tends to carry forward through later life, although there are obvious preselection problems with those studies.  Still, for at least some of these students, we can hope for a positive form of character education as a result of the service requirement.

Let us also not forget the potential for good works, here. The scale of this thing is monumental: 100 hours a year times 12 million students = 1.2 billion man-hours a year … and that’s not including the middle and high school students involved. If any significant fraction of those hours are actually spent in meaningful ways, we are talking about an army of workers that can do a hell of a lot of good things. My own suggestion: mobilize an army of college student tutors for underperforming primary school children. But picking up trash, renovating or building low-income housing, and all those other WPA-style projects have enormous potential for good, as well. In all the revisionist attempts to tar the New Deal as a failure, one of the conspicuous omissions is the lasting benefits that accrued to the country as a result, in the form of everything from mountain trails to logarithm tables.

As for the effects on the participants, make no mistake, this program would fundamentally change the nature of the college experience. It is an exercise in social engineering that goes far beyond the GI Bill; a better analogy is probably the creation of the community college system.

So what could possibly go wrong?

Rather a lot of things, actually. Recognize that these jobs effectively pay $40 an hour. The distorting effect of that wage on local economies can only be guessed at.  But just looking at the effects within the colleges, let’s consider two cases: a small, rural private college called Cloverfield College, and a big, urban state university called Flagship U. Cloverfield probably depends on work study students to run its library and its cafeterias; diverting 25% of that workforce away from campus operations may pose a real hardship, or at a minimum require significant additional staffing that will translate into tuition increases. Surprisingly, perhaps, Cloverfield will probably not have trouble finding service projects for its students; rural poverty is endemic, and with that poverty come a host of projects that could use staffing. The administration has not given us much in the way of guidance as to what will count as “service,” but in rural areas undoubtedly some of this would take the form of things like internships at woefully understaffed social services offices. In rural areas in particular, the program may have an entirely secondary benefit of providing staff to government offices that have historically operated at vestigial levels. The staff, to be sure, will be college students, but they work for free.

Now consider Flagship U. They are located in a large or medium-sized city. Their problem is to find 100 hours of service work for each of 35,000 students all at once, every year. For starters, they need a whole new administrative unit – particularly since the federal money will undoubtedly be accompanied by compliance requirements that necessitate considerable record-keeping and auditing functions. Local NGOs will be eager to absorb as much free labor as they can, but that will not be remotely enough; Flagship U. is about to get into the public service business on a very large scale.  The huge temptation will be to combine serivce work with credit-earning opportunities, on the model of internships and service-learning courses; this means that the entire faculty will be drawn into this operation to one degree or another.  This will affect everything from admissions (“we need more students who can read a wiring diagram”) to faculty hiring priorities. Existing service learning programs will be vastly expanded, and likely provide the nucleus for the new, extraordinarily powerful center of campus planning.

The results are predictable. First, this is a system that positively begs to be gamed. Much of the “service” will be make work, and in other cases the work will likely be political or of highly questionable value. Instead of learning idealism, students may learn a whole new layer of cynicism as “service work” joins “ethnic studies” in the litany of meaningless but easily evaded ritual required elements of a college education. There will be significant opportunity costs; many students will be dissuaded from participation in highly time-consuming extracurricular activities because of the time spent doing service, others will look to expand service into an entire form of extracurricular (resume-building) life in its own right.  Will students also be dissuaded form pursuing more demdanding academic efforts because of the extra serivce “course” they are required to take, semester in and semester out through their entire college career?  Will socializing be sacrificed, or other extracurricular activities… or just reading for class?  How far will faculty go to accommodate these extra demands?

Make no mistake, there will be administrators, faculty, and students who disapprove of the system and who will actively work to undermine its operations. Conversely, there will be an enormous growth of organizations whose entire purpose is to get hold of some of these funded students and make use of their free labor. Colleges will undoubtedly take the availability of this tax credit into account in determining financial need. And the fantasy novel quality of student resumes can only be enhanced by the fact that essentially everyone has 400 hours (or 500 or 600 depending on how many years they spend in college) of university-approved “service” documented in their record.

There are a myriad other questions. For starters, working out what counts as “service” is an incredibly thorny problem. Does political work count? How about working with organizations that engage in routine discrimination, like the Boy Scouts or some churches? You really want to improve college education? Put the best students to work tutoring those that are struggling. Would that count as “service”? Presumably, each individual college would be independently authorized to create its own program within federal guidelines; the variation would be huge, and that variation would become a recruiting draw, an element of rankings, another division between the have and the have-not colleges. What about insurance coverage for students while they are engaged in service work; will existing university group health plans simply pick up all of that risk? Will schools find a way to exempt football players? And one can only presume that any time a program is excluded from participation by a college, a lawsuit will entaile: the whole program, without doubt, would be yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of the American Lawyers’ Full Employment Act.

A lot of these complications derive from the fact that here, as in so many areas, the Obama administration eschews the direct and radical approach. The direct approach would be to declare a national service draft: every American must spend two years following his or her 18th birthday in either the military or a National Service Corps operated under direct government command and control.  That would be entirely separate from college. Colleges, after all, are not designed to administer a program of national service, have priorities that arguably compete with the demands of national service, are not organized around a primary goal of promoting serivce.  Asking colleges to become the locii of a national service plan is neither demanding a full-fledged national service plan of the kind familiar from many other countries, on the one hand, but at the same time involves a radical and experimental intervention in our system of higher education, probably the most successful American institution there is in terms of global prestige and competitiveness.  It can reasonably be argued that this is an approach that tries so hard to do two things at once it risks not doing either effectively.  But the Obama administration prefers to form partnerships with existing private and public institutions, to rely on incentives rather than coercion, and to keep control of operations decentralized. So it will be up to the administrators of Cloverfield College and Flagship U. — and every technical college and community college and branch campus in the country —  to find service projects for all their students, against the background of all the competing constituencies and the noise of local politics.  Imagine the future college catalogues that recruit students by promising the most prestigious, least demanding, most interesting service options available anywhere. . .

All that being said, there is no doubt that many students would find the experience of service work educative and valuable, and some number would find that experience transformative. I do not doubt that much good and valuable work would be done in addition to the make-work and the manipulation. Over time, would we see a rise in general levels of engagement and participation among new cohorts of college graduates? Maybe.

To summarize: 1) this is an enormous undertaking and a huge intervention in American society; 2) a lot of things will certainly go wrong; but 3) some good – maybe a lot — will be accomplished, measured on three distinct metrics: cash will be delivered into the hands of a population that both needs it and is likely to spend it (the precise test for an effective stimulus effort); students’ experiences will be enriched at least in many cases, and in some cases the experience of service will shape their characters; and 3) the work will do some good, perhaps considerable good. The main potential losses here are difficult to quantify or define: “college” will never be the same again, in ways – potentially good and bad – I can only dimly begin to appreciate.  And when one considers the potential long-term consequence of that transformation for American society as a whole, the scale of this undertaking suddenly appears positively breathtaking.

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