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It's time our country embrace a National Service Corps for our young people

Feb 27, 2017

Some years ago there was an effort to boost enrollment at Wayne State University, where I teach. One administrator told me that they were admitting "anyone with a Pell Grant and a pulse." Unfortunately, the result wasn’t what everyone was hoping for.

Some of these students weren’t intellectually ready or able for college, and soon dropped out or flunked out. Others weren’t emotionally ready, and had no idea what they wanted to do.

The same pattern is now repeating itself in our community colleges.

Well, I’ve been teaching for a long time, and I can tell you that very few teenagers are ready for college. Ready, that is, in the sense of having any idea what they want to do in life. That wasn’t so bad back in the 1960s, when tuition was much less and the system more forgiving.

... to have compiled disastrous grades and mountains of debt by age 20 is worse than not to have started college at all.

But to have compiled disastrous grades and mountains of debt by age 20 is worse than not to have started college at all. So I think I have an idea that would vastly benefit society.

We establish the concept of two years of National Service for virtually every young person from age 18 to 20 – some military; but far more non-military. This would not be compulsory, like the old military draft, but would be, in the words of retired U.S. Army General Stan McChrystal, “appropriately voluntary but socially expected.”

This would cost our nation billions – and would reap rewards worth trillions. Part of it could be done by expanding programs like Americorps and the Peace Corps.

But we might want to create new entities like a National Infrastructure Corps to rebuild our roads and bridges. They did this during the Great Depression.

Up in Roscommon there is an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp that has been turned into a museum.

One hundred thousand young men from Michigan were put to work planting forests and doing conservation work. The ones I have interviewed said it was one of the best times of their lives.

They weren’t paid much in cash, but the knowledge and experience and what they learned about teamwork and various crafts were invaluable. Millions more were paid by another agency, the Works Progress Administration, known as the WPA. It built roads and bridges and some of the sturdiest and most durable post offices this country has ever had.

If we were to do something like this today, we might solve many of our infrastructure and social problems at the same time; those taking part could be compensated with a G.I. bill-type grant that would cover their education, for which they would almost certainly be more ready after they completed their service.

There's also no reason that the Michigan couldn't do a pioneer program like this on its own.

There’s also no reason that the Michigan couldn’t do a pioneer program like this on its own.

I am well aware that this would be immediately denounced as socialism by the usual suspects. To which I’d say, it certainly would be.

In fact, my National Service Corps would be a milder version of the most successful socialistic enterprise this nation has ever known, socialism totally approved by virtually every conservative Republican I’ve ever met.

They call it the Armed Forces of the United States. I don’t think another branch that builds things and people up instead of blowing them up would be so bad.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior 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.