06/26/2013 10:08 am ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

Why Do We Need to Expand National Service?

If we want to have a shot at solving any of the great challenges of our time, we need to ask and empower young Americans to build careers focused on the public good. At the Aspen Institute's Franklin Project, our goal is simple: make universal national service a new American rite of passage. We want to create one million civilian national service positions for young people ages 18 -28. This early service will have a powerful impact on individuals serving and communities, and help millions of young people launch lives focused on serving others. Hundreds of leaders from across the country are gathering in Aspen today to design a plan to make this goal a reality, -- and we need your help.

National service can help bring unity to our nation. National service can help train the next generation of publicly minded leaders. National service can help solve our biggest problems. These are powerful benefits, but also hard to grasp. All too frequently, we struggle to communicate the value of service. The impact of service unfolds over decades and lifetimes; it's hard to measure and harder yet to squeeze into pithy sound-bites. We need those stories of individuals to really understand the power of service.

When I think about the importance of national service for this next generation of youth, I think of my 16-year-old friend, Alberto. His life could be fundamentally different if the Franklin Project succeeds.

Alberto is a rising senior in San Jose, California. He studies hard and is a caring brother and son. We met at Camp Kesem, a summer camp for kids with cancer in their family. Then, as an 11-year-old, he was already helping his mother deal with the challenges of illness.

Cancer is not the only challenge Alberto has overcome, and he wants to use his life to help others facing similar challenges - from underperforming schools to grappling with those words nobody wants to hear from a doctor. But I wonder, as Alberto enters adulthood, will our national institutions be ready to put his passion and commitment to work? Are we ready, and able, to tap into his great potential to be a leader?

Right now, the answer is unclear. Alberto may be lucky and land one of the competitive and rare opportunities to serve in AmeriCorps, our nation's national service program, Peace Corps, Teach For America, City Year, or another excellent opportunity. But last year, more than half a million AmeriCorps applications were denied -- not because these young people didn't have what it takes, but because there weren't enough positions.

We can change this. Three steps could fundamentally change Alberto's life, and the lives of hundreds of thousands just like him.

1. Give the Opportunity of a Gap Year
Support programs that give Alberto the chance to serve for a year before college. He could serve in his home community of San Jose, or someone else around the world. He would enter school with an even stronger commitment to service, already having helped make the nation better. Data from Middlebury suggest this would increase his chance of being a leader on campus and help his grades.

2. Increase Service Positions
Fully fund the Serve America Act, which would expand AmeriCorps slots from 80,000 to 250,000 per year, and create a certification system that would allow nonprofits across the country to employ young people seeking to do a year of service. A quantum leap to 1 million slots would help ensure that every young person who wants to serve, including Alberto, can do so.

3. Expect and Reward Service
If national service became a universal expectation and opportunity, every college, employer, and colleague would ask, "where did you serve?" This would reward those, like Alberto, who show commitment to community and country.

Through all of this, Alberto would work alongside people from across the country - of different races, political beliefs, and passions. Together they would deepen their commitment to public service, their ability to work together, and their own leadership. No matter what Alberto does in life, service to the nation will fundamentally transform him.

The service would have a powerful impact in communities, too. We know service can have a huge positive impact on high school drop out rates, disaster response, and so many other important problems. In fact, the economic returns to communities of a young person engaging in national service are three times as high as the costs.

Recent polls show that for all of these reasons, four out of five voters support national service. It is time to act on this support. We need your help. Stay tuned to The Franklin Project website for more information about how you can get involved.

This post is part of a collaboration between The Huffington Post and The Aspen Institute, in which a variety of thinkers, writers and experts will explore the most pressing issues of our time. For more posts from this partnership, click here. For more information on The Aspen Institute, click here.