Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bad Idea du Jour: Mandating Community Service for a Tax Credit

by Daniel L. Bennett

Our good friend from ACTA, Anne Neal, has an excellent OpEd in the Washington Examiner arguing that Congress should not mandate community service as a requisite for receiving an college tax credit.
It is most emphatically not about having the government dictate how students spend their time and live their lives.

There is already overwhelming evidence that colleges and universities are failing to focus on their core mission of undergraduate education. They certainly don't need to be further distracted by community service requirements.

Rather than mandating community service, the best way to help college students get outside themselves is to have them delve into great figures of history, wrap their minds around the best works of literature, and grapple with big ideas that have changed the world.

We certainly would balk if Congress decided to give families a tax credit for students to participate in sports or act in local theaters --- wholesome activities, yes, but ones which have little to do with an institution's main educational purpose. For the same reason, we should oppose any efforts by Congress to mandate community service -- something that students, by any definition, should voluntarily choose -- particularly when the available evidence suggests that students desperately need to be focused on learning, not something else.
In addition to Neal's arguments, I'd like to add that linking the credit to community service is a bad idea because of potential unintended consequences:
1)There are already a high percentage of college students who volunteer in their communities, with charities often already having waiting lists that require students and groups to sign up well in advance to volunteer;

2) A service-for-credit incentive theoretically is not much different than the federal work study program, except that it essentially pays students, who may already perform community service voluntarily, a much higher wage (up to $40 and hour);

3) It will dilute the value of volunteering, as persons who currently perform community service out of the goodness of their hearts and are motivated to do a good job will be joined by many who are "only in it for the money"; and

4) The Obama Administration may think that it is creating an incentive to volunteer and that once young people start doing community service, they will continue to do so; however, the incentive could work in reverse: once people get used to the idea that there is something of monetary value to be gained from doing community service, they may never volunteer again without something in return;

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