Thanks to the pandemic, college as we knew it has been seriously disrupted. This year could be the biggest gap year ever for recent high school graduates delaying starting college. At the same time, emerging research shows the pandemic has knocked many current college students off their path toward on-time graduation. Yet it remains the case that about sixty % of jobs will require at least some education beyond high school, thus affirming that a college degree is critical to socioeconomic stability and upward mobility. Something must be done to prevent a lost generation, further disconnected from education beyond high school.
We propose a national initiative to engage people in public service and award college credits for the experiences they gain doing that work.
National service is a longstanding tradition with bipartisan support. The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), an independent federal government agency, was first created under President George H.W. Bush and built upon by his successors, former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. To date, CNCS has engaged over five million Americans through national service. Our proposal is simply a modern twist on this 30-year effort, which recognizes the importance of creating a smooth and efficient transition from national service to higher education.
To ease the eventual shift from service to college, institutions can use prior learning assessment to measure students’ competencies and award credits for their service and life experiences. Prior learning assessments evaluate students’ college-level knowledge, skills, and abilities for academic credit, usually through test-based assessments or in portfolio form.
Already used in 24 states, prior learning assessments affirm the value of hands-on experience and increase the likelihood students will graduate. A study conducted by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning found that graduation and retention rates are 2.5 times higher for students who earn credit through prior learning assessments. They appear to save students an average of between 2.5 and 10.1 months of time on the path to degree completion. We are all paying the price for the rising time-to-degree; this is a way to combat that problem and make college more affordable.
National leadership should expand on the Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act and scale up the use of prior learning assessment to the national level. Turning public service into a college credit-earning experience saves students time and money without sacrificing the value of their degree.
The economic benefits are hard to ignore; an investment of $1.00 in CNCS programs yields overall benefits to society of $3.90. It is important to note, however, that any public service opportunity offered must reflect the society we are seeking to build: Opportunities must be available for individuals with diverse abilities so that they may participate in and benefit from national service.
Acknowledging that people closest to the pain should be closest to the power does not begin and end with candidates running for office. A national service program tied to college credit would acknowledge the lessons, growth, and productivity that are cultivated through lived experience, while also equitably enhancing access to a college degree.
Recall First Lady Michelle Obama’s words about her time as Executive Director of Public Allies, an AmeriCorps public service program:
For the first time in my life, really, I felt I was doing something immediately meaningful, directly impacting the lives of others while also staying connected to both my city and my culture.
Building such connections will enhance the nation’s economic recovery, and ensuring that those connections support lifelong learning will propel prosperity. There’s never been a more important time to expand hope and opportunity in this way.