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Improve college graduation rates with mandatory national service

Feb 19, 2016

When it comes to education issues, the crisis facing Detroit’s Public Schools is now the elephant filling the room. The question is whether the state House of Representatives’ ideological fanaticism and hatred for unions will prevent a sensible fix of the troubled district.

If it does, and the schools topple into bankruptcy, it could cost government --meaning us -- twice as much as the governor’s proposed plan.

For now, all we can do is pray no one asks Donald Trump how he would fix the schools. But eventually, the focus will turn to higher education, which is steadily becoming more and more unaffordable, and where the buzz words are retention and graduation rates.

These days, state universities are increasingly being rewarded – or punished – based on the percentage of their students who graduate within five years. Wayne State University, where I teach, is regularly getting shortchanged by the state because we have the lowest graduation rates.

To some extent, Wayne brought this on itself. For a while, we joked that it was admitting anyone with a Pell Grant and a pulse: Students, in other words, with little realistic prospect of academic success.

That’s less true now. Mostly, Wayne’s being treated unfairly.

We are Michigan’s urban university. We serve students who come from different and disadvantaged backgrounds, who work and have children, and yes, it takes them longer to graduate. And we are their only hope.

That’s not always well understood by lawmakers who come from ethnically homogenous mid-Michigan. But there’s another problem which no one is talking about and all our universities share: The vast majority of 18 year olds are not really ready for college.

They don’t know what they want to do; they aren’t fully adults, whatever the law says, and they often make a mess of things.

My student population is not only ethnically but generationally diverse.

I have a student now in her mid-50s.

She is incredibly intellectually enthusiastic; her writing is brilliant, she gets near-perfect scores on everything, and I use her essays as a benchmark to evaluate other students’ work.

Those in their mid to late twenties almost always do better than those five years younger, because they are more grown-up. And I have a perfect solution that I am offering free of charge to the first presidential candidate who wants it.

I think we should require two years of mandatory national service of everyone between the ages of 18 and 20. We could give them the option of military or non-military service, and the non-military corps would be much larger.

They could be taught to rebuild roads and bridges, work with FEMA, work with the elderly, in literacy programs –wherever our national needs are greatest.

When they complete their service, we would give them educational assistance, as we do with our soldiers.

Everyone would benefit.

The young most of all; they’d have more self-confidence and a better idea who they are. Some, naturally, will immediately holler that this would be socialism, to which I’d say, "Whatever."

Incidentally, most conservatives love the biggest and most purely socialist program we’ve ever had: The Armed Forces of the United States. We have traditionally used thousands of young adults to blow things up. Why not try using some to rebuild them instead?

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.