Obscured behind the common narratives that paint millennials as a “me generation” lies an often-overlooked fact: Today’s young people want to serve. While voter turnout, membership in community organizations, and other measures of youth civic engagement have been declining for decades, volunteer service is the one indicator that has trended up, instead of down, since the 1970s.
Each year, applications for AmeriCorps-funded national-service programs like City Year and Teach For America greatly exceed their acceptance capacity. The young people who can’t find placements miss out on what could be a transformational opportunity: Research shows that service awakens in youths a commitment to civic life, and can be a gateway to deeper participation in civic and democratic activities.
On many college campuses, community service is thriving. At my own institution, Tufts University, more than half of all undergraduates report engaging in some type of volunteer work during their four years. The university’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, which for years has led the charge to make all forms of civic engagement an integral part of higher education, recently launched an initiative called the Tufts 1+4 Bridge-Year Service Learning Program, which enables incoming students to do a year of full-time service before beginning their formal academic studies.
Many other schools—from middle schools to high schools to colleges and universities—are also creating innovative ways to engage students, and to use service learning as an effective form of pedagogy.
These efforts respond in part to the growing body of research showing that service leads to better outcomes for students before, during, and after college. In one study published by the Tisch College’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, or CIRCLE, high school students who took part in school-sponsored community service were more likely to improve their reading, math, science, and history scores—and 22 percentage points more likely to graduate from college. Service also has been found to build core skills that today’s employers value, and those who serve and have served are 27 percent more likely to find a job after being unemployed.
Initiatives to engage students in meaningful community service also respond to a deepening national concern about the health of our democracy. In 1947, the Truman Commission on Higher Education concluded that educating for democracy “should come first ... among the principal goals for higher education.” In the decades following, the attention paid to this idea diminished, but in recent years, the notion that higher education is responsible for preparing young people to participate thoughtfully and effectively in our democracy has experienced a much-needed renewal.
Community and national service speak to our deepest values: the desire to be a part of something greater than ourselves.
In sum: National service strengthens education, our communities, the economy, and our democracy.
So it’s especially troubling that, this past summer, the House appropriations subcommittee that covers labor, health and human services, and education approved a spending bill that would cut more than $350 million in funding from the Corporation for National and Community Service, or CNCS, slashing its budget by more than a third.
These cuts would jeopardize critical services for students, veterans, working families, and communities recovering from natural disasters. They also send the wrong message about the nation’s priorities, as they threaten to deprive a generation of young people of opportunities to improve their communities while learning to be the responsible citizens our democracy needs.
This spending bill has serious implications for colleges and students as well. Many AmeriCorps members depend on the educational awards they receive to help pay for their higher education. In addition, hundreds of thousands of college graduates have gone on to participate in CNCS-run programs, including AmeriCorps, VISTA, and the National Civilian Conservation Corps, continuing their education beyond the classroom while also addressing critical public issues and effecting change. Colleges and universities cannot sustain these vital opportunities on their own.
The proposed funding cuts to the CNCS are also especially ill-timed. They threaten to undercut this moment of growing consensus about the importance of service to communities, as well as to the individuals serving. They would weaken the infrastructure of national service at a time when other organizations that enable civic engagement, like unions and local political parties, are on the decline. And reduced support for national service would be another blow to young people who are disengaged from and disillusioned with a broken political system they feel is unresponsive to their needs.
Community and national service speaks to our deepest values: the desire to be a part of something greater than ourselves, to confront shared problems, and to be responsible for one another. There was a time when service and democracy bound Americans together in common purpose. We must return to that time.
Educational institutions have an important role to play in moving this work forward, and federal support for national service is indispensable if we want young people, by their civic engagement, to help restore America’s democratic health.
A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as Millennials Want to Serve. Let’s Help Them Do It.