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Karen M. Whitney, Ph.D.

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Is Now the Time for Mandatory National Service?

Posted: 07/30/2012 6:14 pm

Over the 30 years I have been privileged to work in higher education I have contributed to the education and graduation of over 100,000 college students. My interactions with college students range from working directly with students as a teacher, advisor, or mentor to managing programs and services that would serve and support thousands. With these experiences, I have begun to wonder if now is the time for everyone 18-20 years of age to serve their country through two years of national service.

As a university president, I can imagine many benefits to the individual and to society in creating a mandatory requirement for all of the over 8.5 million 18- and 19-year-olds to serve their country. The service is mandatory with several types of service available. The traditional military service would be available as well as community (non-military) service.

The key is that for two years every citizen gives their country their time and talent in service to their country. In return, a grateful nation would provide public funds (yes that would be tax dollars we all pay) to the national service that would train these high school graduates for their service assignment, feed, cloth and provide a minimal stipend during their assignment. The last stage of their assignment would provide transition guidance and financial support for life after national service. The post service support would be at the choosing of the individual who could use the funding that they have earned to help launch them into their adult life by going to college, seeking technical training, starting a small business etc.

For the 18-year-old high school graduate the world is an exciting and overwhelming place. To be direct, one benefit of two years of national service is that it will allow 18- to 20-year-olds to grow and grow up. Recent advances in brain research clearly indicates that our brains are taking longer to grow up. My experience is that all things being equal, 20-year-olds make better college students than 18-year-olds. A two year assignment to national service could instill a sense of purpose and relevance that is often missing from the lives of 18- and 19-year-olds.

For American society, a program of national service would instill the American ethic of service to country as a ritual of attaining adulthood. A program that would move millions from high school to two years of service and then onto adulthood. To be clear, an immediate benefit would be a sudden reduction of pressure on the job pipeline by immediately reducing our national unemployment. The result of over 8.5 million young men and women not entering the job market and working for the public good would reinvigorate the economy.

Imagine over 8.5 million young men and women working either in military service or in public service. Public service would be working in the governmental and non-profit sectors to advance the greater good of our communities. Working in ways that the private market has not or would not support. Infusing young, energetic and prepared citizens into communities across the country in ways that increases the quality of life for all.

From the sons and daughters of truck drivers and tycoons, all would serve. We would all benefit both personally and as a country.

So, is now the time for mandatory national service?

 
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