Service Year at Home or Abroad

Every year, a quarter of a million U.S. students leave the comfort of their colleges to study abroad. As a new semester begins, most students are likely to go to one of five countries -- the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy or China -- to learn at a foreign university that gives them academic credit at their colleges. A "junior year abroad" (or semester) has become part of the culture of many college campuses and a life-changing experience for more students every year. The idea has not only caught on in the U.S. -- three times as many international students are studying in the U.S. as U.S. students are studying abroad.

We propose another powerful idea -- a "service year" at home or abroad -- that would not only widen students' horizons, but also give them the chance to connect their coursework to a cause.

Imagine if every student had the opportunity before, during or after college to spend a year applying their academic learning to real world experiences serving others and grounding their education in service year experiences that bring learning to life, inspire them to complete college, and lay a foundation for courses of study that lead to careers.

Those who perform a service year would continue to take courses in classrooms or online, but such courses would be aligned with their service experiences. Conservation corps members in national parks could take classes in environmental studies; health corps workers in community health centers could study medicine or public health; and education corps members could apply their learning in math, English, literature and history to help bring those subjects alive for those they tutor. Students studying languages could serve in immigrant communities in the U.S. or serve native speakers abroad.

Students who serve would receive course credit for college-level learning during their service year based on a comprehensive paper or portfolio, ensuring the experience contributes to degree completion. Students would start to discover why learning is so important and relevant to getting a good job and being a good citizen. In the process, a service year that offers a pipeline to employment could make college more affordable, college completion more common, and a college degree more meaningful.

Many might view this idea as unrealistic. Funding for AmeriCorps and Peace Corps, the nation's federal programs to support domestic and international service year programs, respectively, has been stalled for more than a decade. Higher education institutions are strapped for resources and many have little access to large scale philanthropic resources. Even more significant is the barrier presented by administrators and faculty who subscribe to academic traditions that exclude awarding credit for learning outside the classroom.

However, viewed in another way, such an effort would not be a radical departure for higher education. Service year programs need not cost more than a year spent on campus and could be funded through traditional sources. Colleges and universities already use Federal Work Study to enable some students to work in community-based nonprofits to help pay off their students loans. Many higher education institutions have service-learning courses or independent study classes that ground learning in service experiences. Still others have entire centers and programs dedicated to advancing community, national and public service. In addition, increasing numbers of higher education institutions are awarding credit for college-level learning acquired outside the classroom by veterans and older students. And because a service year is a form of work experience, it can increase employability, consistent with the increasing pressure to improve career outcomes for graduates.

To inspire innovation in higher education along these lines, the Service Year Challenge, sponsored by the Lumina Foundation, offers $100,000 worth of prizes to challenge public, private, independent and community colleges to develop service year opportunities. The Franklin Project and the National Conference on Citizenship will soon launch a new system to certify service year programs and enable students who complete a service year to receive both a transcript documenting their service experience and a credential recognized by employers.

To increase the value of this credential, the Employers of National Service campaign, led by the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps Alums, and the Franklin Project, enlists employers to recognize the value of a service year in their hiring processes. Already businesses such as Comcast/NBC Universal, CSX, and Disney, as well as nonprofit and government employers, are participating.

Too many students today fail to complete their studies with huge consequences to them, higher education, and society. A service year at home or abroad could help flip that dynamic for many students, make college relevant to career and life, and help produce a generation of active citizens. Research shows that service learning increases personal efficacy, leadership skills, and cross-cultural understanding, as well as learning outcomes and career development. Experiencing a service year could also reinvigorate our democracy, by helping to produce graduates with civic skills, experiences in diverse communities, and commitments to make our communities and world better at a time when social and institutional trust are at historic lows.

In the last two decades, the number of U.S. students studying abroad has more than tripled. If a service year experienced similar growth, not only would hundreds of thousands of students leave college with deeper learning inspired by first-hand knowledge, they would also gain work experience valued by employers. Students would leave college with a stronger sense of purpose, and America would begin to see a country of leaders in nonprofits, businesses, and governments who could work together to get big things done for our country again.

That is an idea worth investing in.