Required to Graduate: Mandatory Volunteering

Senate Bill 2079, which would create a substantial community service requirement for graduation from the North Carolina colleges, has two laudable goals. It seeks to instill in educated young people a habit of volunteering for the betterment of society, and it tries to address some of the academic problems in our K-12 schools.

The bill calls for creation of an “Eve Carson/Abhijit Mahato Community Service Program” for all undergraduate students in the UNC system and in private colleges participating in state financial aid programs. It states that “students shall provide mentoring and tutoring services for a minimum of 20 hours per semester to public school-aged children across the State. “

Unfortunately, for too many reasons to list in a short article, this attempt to kill two birds with one stone will leave both birds singing gaily in the treetops, while giving the stone-thrower (taxpayers and residents of North Carolina) a sore pitching arm. It is unlikely that the spirit of voluntary service can be spread through involuntary servitude. And the poor performance by many students in low-income communities is not likely to be turned around by such a superficial approach as forcing college students to serve as tutors.

As for fostering the volunteer spirit, this bill might be unnecessary. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 60 million Americans volunteered with some official organization in 2007, and the annual rate of participation in community service activities for people over the age of 25 with college degrees exceeds 40 percent.

The mandates of Bill 2079 might even be counterproductive to the goal of encouraging civic engagement. In 1999 and 2004, similar attempts were made to bring community service requirements to the University of California. Former system provost H.R.C. Greenwood wrote that the university’s academic senate stated that “[E]xisting research on collegiate community service suggests that a graduation requirement impedes, rather than promotes, the fostering of an ethic of public service.”

Also, the required “volunteer work” would disproportionately affect college students who are already making full use of their time. These include students who must work to pay for their educations, students who are heavily involved in extracurricular activities (including other forms of volunteer work) and students with difficult STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) majors who must study for long hours. It would be even worse for older students who not only juggle work and school but family obligations as well.

It is also doubtful that there would be significant improvement in performance by “at-risk” K-12 students. Students who are failing or struggling need intensive training, not an hour here or there with a disinterested college student. The reasons for these students’ slow progress are many and often serious: possibly including dysfunctional families where drug addiction and alcoholism are present, single parents who are sorely pressed for time and money, deeply ingrained cultural barriers to education, and so on. Improving the performance of such students will require equally serious solutions, including, perhaps, a return to more traditional classroom teaching methods.

There is also ample potential for mischief by immature or troubled participants on both sides of the relationship. Some teenagers should not be placed in a position of respect and authority over children who are either just a few years younger or many years younger. And most college students are ill-equipped to deal with the problems presented by at-risk children, whose behavior often baffles experienced professionals.

Other problems are easily foreseeable. With over 280,000 college students in the state, this program would require extensive coordination between two large public education bureaucracies, numerous private colleges and charities, religious groups and volunteer agencies. It would require systems and procedures for evaluation, background checks, and record-keeping. SB 2079 allots a mere $230,000 for the 2008-9 school year–an amount of money that would undoubtedly grow over time.

Another negative aspect of the bill is the General Assembly’s attempt to legislate graduation requirements, decisions traditionally left to the colleges themselves. Will this introduce an additional (and unwelcome) element of politics into the university system? And should the legislature be able to dictate to private schools as if they were state-run, simply because the institutions accept state financial aid to students?

There may be benefits to urging young people to be more engaged with the community at large through volunteer work. But any proposal to require such work must be examined long and hard, from many angles. It might be better to simply allow the spirit of community service to come from the good will, religious beliefs or the passions of individuals, instead of forcing it upon them at a time when their minds are occupied with other pursuits. And the proposed “mentoring and tutoring” is unlikely to have much positive effect on the education of at-risk K-12 students. SB 2079, if passed, is likely to be a costly mistake, and not just in monetary terms.