Before college, students need to serve their country

When I tell my first-year students that each 50-minute class costs them roughly $80, they are not impressed.

"Whatever," I can feel many of them mumbling, because in most cases their parents are paying the freight. For too long now, professors have passed the blame for ill-prepared, inattentive students down to the high schools, where it is shifted to the junior highs, then the grade schools, kindergartens, and finally a child's first play group.

The litany has been with us for far too long, and it is high time that we got out of the blame business and into reforms that might genuinely make a difference.

I propose that high school graduates be required to spend a year in national service - working as aides in hospitals and nursing homes, fixing up declining neighborhoods, or tutoring second-graders so they read better. Money earned could be applied toward college tuition.

The combination of spending a year in the real world and earning money would improve student attitudes and financial situations, better preparing them for college. It also could offset the enormous cost currently earmarked to help freshmen adjust to new challenges and confusions.

As I imagine national service, very few high school graduates would be exempt - only those who volunteer for the military and those who are physically or mentally unqualified would be excused. Everyone else would have to serve, partly because there is probably no better lesson in democracy than to see, first-hand, just how diverse - how genuinely multicultural - America is. Also, the year would prepare them for college life in ways that no amount of cramming for the SATs can.

While teaching in Israel, one of many countries that mandates military service after high school, I noticed there were considerable differences between students who had an extra year to mature and those who did not. But I wouldn't wish for our national service to become either military or paramilitary in spirit.

Moreover, many students already agree about "service" - if the sharp rise in student volunteerism is a reliable indicator. At my college, many students are eager to participate in recycling projects, to tutor sixth-graders in reading, or to help with numbers of other worthy endeavors.

Granted, some students may balk at anything required, and some adults would worry about the price tag of a national-service bureaucracy. They would argue: Is this yet another instance of a pie-in-the-sky proposal generated by an out-of-it academic?

I don't think it is, for these reasons: Given higher education's multibillion-dollar budget, the cost of what I'm proposing is small potatoes. Also, given the projected savings in programs to help teens adapt to college, universities would surely be expected to make a fair-share contribution to national service.

Having completed their service, students would have two payment options. Those who want to continue their education - in any form -would be paid slightly more and be required to allocate money toward tuition. Less would go to those who plan to hang around their neighborhoods or at the local mall.

My plan falls well short of panacea, but I think it would result in a more mature group of first-year students who would pay close attention when they learn that each class lecture costs 80 of the dollars they earned in national service.

*Sanford Pinsker is Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

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