Healing and Paying With National Service

An AmeriCorps worker helps gut a house being renovated for affordable housing.
An AmeriCorps worker helps gut a house being renovated for affordable housing. Brian Snyder/Reuters

Originally published at The Hill

December 29, 2020
9:00 am (EST)

An AmeriCorps worker helps gut a house being renovated for affordable housing.
An AmeriCorps worker helps gut a house being renovated for affordable housing. Brian Snyder/Reuters
Article
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

As the Biden administration takes shape, an emphasis on voluntary national service, namely young adults volunteering national service at home, abroad or in the military in exchange for tuition waivers for higher education, will be a powerful beginning. The healing bridge for youth who will shape the future is voluntary service for the public good. 

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AmeriCorps, VISTA and the Peace Corps are relatively limited programs of national and international service to which Americans of sincere purpose have contributed their talents for decades.  

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has advocated that Washington pay the college tuition for all students, no matter what their backgrounds, financial or otherwise, and with no commitment in return. His has been a plea for fairness that resonates with the grievances of those who consider themselves left behind by modern society. Sanders wants to eliminate crippling student indebtedness following graduation.  

Much has already been studied and proposed. For example, the Brookings Institution and Service Year Alliance have published articles and reports on the prospects for national service and recommendations for action. The National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service recently presented a comprehensive plan for national service.

The “Biden Plan for Education Beyond High School” will soon guide a revitalized Department of Education, aiming for tuition grants, loan forgiveness and workforce training programs with special focus on community colleges and minority institutions.   

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Recruits who enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces and serve at least 36 months can tap the G.I. Bill to cover four years of college. There is no partisanship in promoting such military service, which is a great leveler in American society.

If Biden’s goal of healing the nation is to have real meaning, then a good place to start with liberals, conservatives and centrists is national and international service grounded in an incentivized program of work in exchange for tuition for college and vocational training. 

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National service requires working together and sharing experiences among a diverse group of American high school graduates drawn from a broad political spectrum. The lessons learned—cooperation, understanding varied points of view and achieving a common goal—will build a stronger American body politic and society. Its time has come in this deeply fractured nation. 

Three priorities should be factored into expanding national and international service for young Americans. The initiative should be a fellowship program tying national and international service to educational benefits.

First, American business needs a better trained workforce to draw upon in the years ahead to compete in the global economy. National service can provide training in temporary jobs that prepare students for institutions of higher learning or vocational schools that can launch new generations into productive jobs. Businesses, corporations and philanthropies could help finance such opportunities in order to build a highly proficient workforce for the future and thus lessen the financial burden on the federal government to fund educational pursuits.

Second, the institutions of higher education, community colleges and vocational schools for which national service would earn tuition waivers should have more skin in the game. They should be invested in the national service objectives and invited to propose opportunities that can directly benefit their own institutions and communities during a volunteer’s service. The tuition waiver for the volunteer, who would have applied and been admitted to the school for the post-service year, could be shared between the school and the federal government. Such targeted national service for the student might entail college administrative tasks and facilities maintenance, community service to bridge town and gown and tutoring by talented high school graduates. 

Third, many volunteers should be steered into international service. The benefit derived by teenagers—be they from poor or financially secure families —who have exposure to foreign cultures is priceless. There is no better act of mature growth than being immersed in a foreign culture with a responsibility to perform. 

Humanitarian relief organizations providing life-saving aid overseas can be integrated into international service for young American volunteers who would devote a gap year between high school and college, or between university and post-graduate studies, to the charity’s work. American and foreign universities could partner to develop service opportunities for American students who seek to contribute to worthy academic-led projects overseas.

Who might be the inspirational leader of a bold service initiative? Biden could turn to a Republican—former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) or former Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio)—to lead a new bipartisan John Lewis Fellowship Program in Public Service.

David J. Scheffer is visiting senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues (1997-2001). Steven H. Simon is executive chairman of the Simon Charitable Foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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