Who could be opposed to community service? Don't we need to volunteer, get outside ourselves, and do something nice for others? Our country, after all, has a great tradition of volunteerism -- what Tocqueville called our "spirit of association."
That's the thinking behind the Treasury and Education departments' current study of the feasibility of making community service mandatory for anyone who wants to receive a tax credit for college tuition.
Their study responds to a congressional mandate in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, commonly known as the stimulus bill. Given our history, the federal government's interest in college students doing community service might seem like great news. But is it?
By definition, volunteerism is just that: voluntary. You volunteer -- no one makes you do it.
This would seem reason enough to object to such a mandate. But there is a bigger issue at stake. A college education is about education. It's about cultivating a love of learning in students and giving them the skills and knowledge they need to become informed citizens and effective workers. It is most emphatically not about having the government dictate how students spend their time and live their lives.
Fortunately, there has been less than a groundswell of support. The American Council on Education, the biggest college lobbying group, wrote Congress an eight-page letter decrying the proposal, joined by an alphabet soup of other organizations. As ACE sees it, a community service requirement would be unworkable because colleges couldn't possibly keep track of which students perform the service.
However, the real problem here is not administrative, but educational. There is already overwhelming evidence that colleges and universities are failing to focus on their core mission of undergraduate education. They certainly don't need to be further distracted by community service requirements.
At many colleges and universities, presidents and administrators have lost sight of students' education, busy as they are expanding facilities, running high-profile athletic programs, asking alumni and legislators for more money, and growing their own ranks. According to the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, the number of noninstructional "support staff" on campuses has doubled in the last two decades, far outpacing enrollment and directly contributing to skyrocketing tuition increases and mounting student debt.
General education requirements, once the backbone of a college education, have gradually fallen to the wayside. As we discovered in surveying graduation requirements for our college-guide Web site WhatWillTheyLearn.com, students can graduate from the vast majority of our colleges without taking broad courses in American history or government, economics, and literature.
Is it any wonder then that so many college graduates today can no longer name the freedoms protected by the First Amendment or read and understand a complicated book? According to the American Institutes for Research, one in five can't do the math to figure out if a car has enough gas to take it to the next station. It's pretty hard to do community service, when you can't get to the community.
Rather than mandating community service, the best way to help college students get outside themselves is to have them delve into great figures of history, wrap their minds around the best works of literature, and grapple with big ideas that have changed the world.
We certainly would balk if Congress decided to give families a tax credit for students to participate in sports or act in local theaters --- wholesome activities, yes, but ones which have little to do with an institution's main educational purpose. For the same reason, we should oppose any efforts by Congress to mandate community service -- something that students, by any definition, should voluntarily choose -- particularly when the available evidence suggests that students desperately need to be focused on learning, not something else.
Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. www.goacta.org.