When I consider how higher education could be improved upon in the future, a number of intersecting present-day challenges come to mind. First, diminished public funding for universities relative to the rate of inflation has led to increasing tuition costs, widespread borrowing among students, and a student loan debt crisis to the tune of $1.6 trillion.1 These economic pressures–exacerbated by the 2008 Great Recession and historic unemployment in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic–have raised questions about the fundamental value of pursuing a college degree as a means of social mobility. In their effort to keep tuition levels reasonable while meeting their financial obligations, schools of higher learning are incentivized to accept students who can pay the full cost of tuition rather than qualified low-income students who may require funding. This situation has contributed to social inequality, “dream hoarding,” and–I would argue–the popular view of academia as an elitist “Ivory Tower.”2 3 Add to this the increasing partisanship that’s taken root in university governance and national debates about the extent to which higher education supports free expression of ideas across the political spectrum, and one sees a trend.4 These interrelated crises are unified by the erosion of universities’ public nature. What can be done about this? I propose a bold intervention designed to renew higher education’s contribution to civic life: College Corps.
What is it? College Corps would be a service program that would place undergraduate students at public universities in government-funded entities for extended internships during their final year of study. As a capstone, this universal program of sustained experiential learning would be tailored to students’ majors to ensure relevance to career aspirations. Federal, state, and local agencies would be eligible hosts for student placement, as well as private entities so long as the latter demonstrate substantial partnership with government (e.g. contract work, consultancies, etc.). The goals of College Corps would be to provide students with first-hand exposure to work for the public good and, reciprocally, enable government to benefit from the influx of student talent. Examples of placements could include students of engineering in public works, criminology in law enforcement, English in libraries… the list of opportunities would be diverse and evolving, based on students’ research, preferences, and proposals.
While precedents exist for required internships and service learning at many schools, none would be quite as comprehensive as College Corps. To carry off such an ambitious national initiative, the program would require targeted mentorship and management. Many universities have already invested in offices of civic engagement or service learning, which could serve as natural bases for this program’s operation. Additionally, the success of this would hinge on defining and assessing students’ efforts to ensure their work is meaningful and rigorous relative to their courses of study.
The proposal of such a compulsory program would surely meet some resistance, rooted in the ubiquitous sense of individualism in the U.S. That being said, the case could be made to detractors that College Corps is akin to Selective Service, which has existed for 100+ years. There’s been a spirited debate within peer developed countries such as Germany and Israel regarding their requirement of citizens to commit a defined period of their young lives to military service.5 6 But by extending public service placement to spaces outside of the military, alone, College Corps may defuse legitimate critiques of conscription. Also, arguing that a public service requirement could foster networking and job opportunities following graduation strengthens the rationale for such an initiative.
The benefits of this program could be numerous. Greater awareness of the public sector would combat 50+ years of neoliberal ideology that has consistently devalued the importance of government services. College Corps would create a more informed electorate. An influx of volunteer labor into government units would improve services and defray costs, freeing up public monies for other purposes. And, as Member of Parliament in the U.K. David Lammy has proposed, compulsory programs in public service could foster a healthy sense of “civic nationalism” at a time when “ethnic nationalism”–infused with racism and xenophobia–is otherwise filling the vacuum of national identity.7
The future of higher education could take many forms. Whether its through College Corps or related programs devoted to a renewal of civic engagement, I’m hopeful that universities’ combination of public mission and innovation will create a better future for all.
 Dickler, J. (2019, October 24). Why college tuition keeps rising. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/24/why-college-tuition-keeps-rising.html
 Freedman, J. (2013, May 16). Why American Colleges Are Becoming a Force for Inequality. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/05/why-american-colleges-are-becoming-a-force-for-inequality/275923/
 Lowrey, A. (2017, June 16). The Hoarding of the American Dream. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/06/the-hoarding-of-the-american-dream/530481/
 Ellis, L., Stripling, J., & Bauman, D. (2020, September 25). Partisan College Governance: 5 Takeaways. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/partisan-college-governance-5-takeaways
 DPA/The Local. (2018, August 6). Why Germany is talking about compulsory national service again. The Local. https://www.thelocal.de/20180806/why-germany-is-talking-about-compulsory-national-service-again
 Jager, A. (2018, October 18). The myth of compulsory military service in Israel. The Jerusalem Post. https://www.jpost.com/opinion/the-myth-of-compulsory-military-service-in-israel-569779
 Lammy, D. (2020, April 23). English identity, civic nationalism and a compulsory civic service. Labour List. Retrieved November 10, 2020, from https://labourlist.org/2020/04/english-identity-civic-nationalism-and-a-compulsory-civic-service/
One Reply to “A Renewal of Public Purpose in the Future of Higher Education”
I liked this post- short, sweet, and to the point. I agree that cost of college needs to be something that universities look to changing in the near future. I liked your point that the pandemic has brought on challenges related to paying for college and has lead some people to place more of an emphasis on other jobs- which, let’s face it, these other jobs are the ones that have proven to be the most important through this pandemic (with a few exceptions, doctors, nurses, and therapists come to mind, but I am sure that there are others- I’m not intending to offend or downplay anyone’s college degree here!). But you’re 100% right. If universities want to see enrollment numbers like they did in previous years, they need to seriously consider bringing down the costs of education. I could see this being done in a few ways, but one that comes to mind is cutting the salaries of higher paid employees. I am also hoping that the new executive administration that will begin in the US in January will be able to help with this. The college experience is one that many have dreamed of having for a long time, and the fact that the cost will take that away from some is heartbreaking to me. These views of universities being more likely to accept richer students who can pay, I agree, are elitist. And we need to do something about it. Higher ed needs to complete a full 180 on this one.
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