By Charlotte Allen
Only a federal bureaucrat could come up with an oxymoron this laughable: "Feasibility of Including a Volunteer Requirement for Receipt of Federal Education Tax Credits." A "volunteer requirement"? Come again? But that's what the Treasury Department said in a call for comments issued this spring on the idea of making community service--volunteer work for charity--mandatory for college students seeking to qualify for a higher-education tax credit made part of the $800 billion economic stimulus bill that Congress passed in 2009.
Fortunately, it turns out grammatical sticklers aren't the only ones who hate the notion of mandatory community service at the post-secondary level. So do many college administrators, who approve of community service and welcome the tax credits that may make their institutions more affordable but adamantly oppose combining the two. The problem is that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 requires the Treasury and Education departments to study the feasibility of forging exactly such a link.
The tax credit in question works like this: Students enrolled in college or some other form of post-secondary training can receive a credit for up to 100 percent of tuition, fees, and course materials up to $2,000 plus 25 percent of the next $2,000, for a maximum credit of $2,500 for each of four years of education. For those students who are too poor to pay income taxes, 40 percent of the credit is refundable. There is a phaseout of the credit for students whose adjusted gross income exceeds $80,000 ($160,000 for married couples).
Molly Corbett, president of the American Council on Education, in a letter to Treasury written on behalf of the council and 20 other higher-education organizations, pointed out that mandatory community service would harm the very low-income students that the tax credit was designed to help, by forcing them to spend precious spare time that could be used to earn money to help support themselves or their families instead volunteering for no pay.
Corbett wrote: "Contrary to the popular image of undergraduates, part-time, older and low-income students make up a large portion of today's college students....Working students, particularly those with families, have very little free time. Requiring community service to access student benefits would therefore force some to choose between work and volunteer activities....Given that nearly one out of four college students who drop out do so for financial reasons; it is unlikely that students will sacrifice work for community service hours." Ironically, Corbett noted, wealthy students who might actually have the free time to spare for volunteering would essentially be able to buy their way out of community service because they wouldn't need or might not qualify financially for the tax credit.
Corbett also pointed to the headaches that overseeing mandatory community service would cause for college administrators: providing enough service opportunities; making sure that students put in the required number of hours, trying to exercise control over the numerous off-campus organizations, ranging from churches to activist non-profits, for which many students currently volunteer.
Corbett's letter was a good start. But there are many more reasons why a federally regulated "volunteer requirement is an idea that ought be shelved. Here are a few:
-- It would make college even more expensive by requiring colleges--already top-heavy (as the New York Times recently reported) with counselors, diversity officers, "green" co-ordinators, and other non-teaching personnel, to hire even more administrators to oversee the new requirement.
-- Colleges should devote their resources to teaching, not monitoring extra-curricular projects for their students. Forcing institutions to underwrite activities unrelated to the classroom undermines their core mission of providing an education.
-- The potential for interfering with particular colleges' religious and moral visions is vast. Should a Catholic college be obliged to give community-service credit to a student who volunteers for Planned Parenthood? Conversely, how would the politically liberal professors and deans at secular colleges feel about their students' working for an organization opposed to same-sex marriage? Allowing college adminstrators or federal regulators to draw up lists of which volunteer activities are acceptable and which are not would create serious constitutional and other legal problems.
-- Volunteer work isn't the only kind of work that can build students' character and ultimately benefit society. Working to help pay college expenses can help even middle-class young people develop a sense of independence and personal responsibility as adults--not to mention cutting the cost of their education and freeing them from crushing student loans.
-- Similarly, many students might benefit more from other equally worthwhile extra-curricular activities--reporting for the college newspaper, joining the debate team, playing in the school orchestra--than from volunteering. Do we really want to force students into one particular use of their free time?
-- Fraud and boondoggling will be inevitable. Remember the repellent Hoyt Thorpe in Tom Wolfe's campus novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons--who gets into an elite university by organizing a supposed do-gooder group that does little more than pose for photo-ops with homeless people? Expect Hoyt Thorpes to proliferate once community service becomes mandatory.
The most cogent argument, however, against removing the volunariness from volunteer work is that it undercuts the very idea of volunteering: the free gift of one's time and service to benefit the community as a whole. Volunteering is a good thing--and increasing numbers of college students agree. As Molly Corbett pointed out in her letter, 6.7 million college students volunteered in 2008, up from 4.2 million in 2000. But volunteering isn't for everyone, certainly not for low-income students with family responsibilities and perhaps not for many middle-income students as well. Nonetheless, making community service mandatory as a condition for graduation is currently a trend at high schools, and it's clear that many members of Congress think mandatory community service might be good for college students as well. The Treasury and Education departments have the power to say no to this bad idea, however, and they should listen to the college administrators and others who oppose it.