But for a small number of students, work-study means more than just providing grunt labor for their college or university. It involves serving their community by tutoring, mentoring, or building homes for low-income families. Suzanne Mastrogiovanni, a senior at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, teaches 7-year-olds in a local school how to read. Upon completing a three-hour training course and passing a police background check, she abandoned her previous work-study job of cleaning equipment in the athletic center. “That was kind of a grub job,” she says. “But working with kids every day is a new adventure.” About 40 percent of Nova Southeastern’s students work in community service to fulfill their financial aid requirement, one of the highest rates in the country.

Students like Mastrogiovanni and universities like Nova Southeastern were exactly what Congress had in mind when it established the program in 1965. But over the years that spirit of service has withered—today it’s the exception rather than the rule. Though students themselves are often eager to serve, the most recent Department of Education figures show that the average college devotes less than 12 percent of its work-study funds to community service.

Given the renewed public interest in national service since September 11, it’s worth examining what has happened to one of the first federal programs created to encourage it. Which schools are leading the way? Which ones are slacking? To find out, The Washington Monthly teamed up with Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism to take a close look at the data—reported annually by schools themselves—and to interview dozens of college presidents, students, financial aid officers, lobbyists, and nonprofit directors. The results can be found in the accompanying tables. Think of them as college rankings that measure what the other guys don’t—schools’ commitment to community service, the Peace Corps, and the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC).

What the numbers show is that when it comes to community service, the nation’s best schools perform the worst. Of the top 20 liberal arts schools in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, 70 percent fall below the national average for performing work-study service—also known as “serve-study.” (click here) The top 20 universities do even worse; 75 percent trail the average. (click here) In fact, of the 20 colleges and universities that devote the greatest percentage of their federal aid to community service, only Stanford University ranks among the U.S. News top 20. Elite schools did somewhat better in another measure of service, graduates who joined the Peace Corps. (click here) But for military service like ROTC, America’s best colleges and universities are AWOL. (click here) “We can safely say,” concludes Barry Checkoway, a professor of social work and urban planning at the University of Michigan, “that most of the nation’s prestigious universities have abandoned their civic mission.”

The poor service records in higher education, especially by the best schools, have drawn the attention of lawmakers. In December, Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) introduced legislation requiring schools to devote at least 25 percent of their work-study funding to community service, up from 7 percent today. Such a move could transform the one million work-study students into the nation’s largest community-service organization, dwarfing even the 50,000 participants in Americorps.

It would be a boon to the nation’s needy. The America Reads program employs about 29,000 work-study students to tutor tens of thousands of elementary school kids, making measurable improvement in reading skills. College students themselves benefit, too. A recent UCLA study of 22,000 college students found that performing community service boosted everything from grade-point average and writing skills to self-esteem and racial understanding.

But before Congress expands serve-study, it should take a hard look at how the program is being run—which is not very well. It is rarely monitored and entirely unenforced, with many schools gaming numbers to meet requirements or simply ignoring them altogether.

The Federal Work-Study Program was initiated under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and moved to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare as part of the Higher Education Act of 1965. “Work-study,” says Lois Dickson Rice, an education scholar at the Brookings Institute, “had an implicit, if not an explicit, purpose of urging students to do community service.” Indeed, look up today’s law and its purpose seems clear: “[T]o encourage students receiving Federal student financial aid to participate in community service activities that will benefit the nation and engender in the students a sense of social responsibility and commitment to the community.” For a while, that’s what it did. But in the late 1960s, as students became increasingly radicalized by the anti-war movement, schools retreated from community service which, loosely defined, could include the sorts of activities that alarm university administrators—in the late ’60s thousands of work-study students organized under the progressive New York City Mayor John Lindsay. In the 1970s colleges saw their costs soar during the energy crisis; state schools in particular were left to operate with much smaller budgets. To compensate, more and more schools limited work-study jobs to campus, where students—a cheap source of labor—began working in academic departments, libraries, dining halls, and rec centers. The ideal of community service all but disappeared. Many schools, particularly expensive elite universities, didn’t seem to mind.

A decade later, centrist Democrats revived the idea of tying service to work-study when, in 1989, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) proposed that all such jobs involve community service. His bill didn’t get far. But three years later, Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.) introduced a measure which halved that requirement. House Republicans weakened it to just 5 percent (it rose to 7 percent last year), before passing what became today’s law. But the appeal of service continued to grow on both sides of the aisle. Colin Powell and President Bill Clinton each took up the mantle, culminating in a national summit on service in Philadelphia in 1997. A year later, Clinton again sought to vastly increase the work-study program—initiating the recent funding boom, which injected an additional $300 million. But as they had with Wofford, lobbyists for colleges and universities balked when Clinton proposed tying half of work-study aid to community-service jobs. Eventually, Clinton conceded that this should only apply to “new” money he’d allotted.

Even this proved unacceptable to the lobbyists, who vehemently oppose federal regulation. “The higher education lobby got a negotiating meeting at the White House,” says Wofford, “and threatened, if any requirements were written into law, to withhold their support from the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.” As an alternative, they promised that schools would commit to training 100,000 tutors for America Reads. Says a former Democratic Senate aide involved in the negotiations, “They said, ‘Look, just don’t put in law and we’ll do it.’ The White House had a lot of other business to do with this crowd, and took them at their word when they pledged to live up to the commitment—which they in fact have not.” While community service has increased on some campuses, for the most part schools have ignored their promise. The number of America Reads tutors in work-study has never topped 30,000.

Coupled with the Department of Education’s lack of enforcement, the practical result is that only schools that wish to support community service do so. Last year 174 schools failed to meet the 5-percent minimum. Most didn’t even bother to request an easily obtainable waivers, putting them in open violation of the law. (click here) “There are enormous punitive measures in that the Department of Education can come in any time they want, unannounced, and audit institutions and make them prove that they’re meeting the rules and regulation,” says one lobbyist. “Failure can get you everything from a fine to getting kicked out of the work-study program—the death penalty.” But in practice, no school has been penalized in the seven years that the law has existed. Schools recognize that they can get away with openly defying the law, because, as this lobbyist puts it, “the Department of Education has always been a thinly staffed, low-prestige agency,” unwilling or unable to police the schools.

Not only do many schools ignore service, many more make dubious claims of “community service” for jobs that probably shouldn’t count as such. The University of Kansas gives service credits to students who work at the campus theater and art museum, since both are open to the public. At Edgewood College, which boasts Wisconsin’s highest compliance level, many community service jobs are in the school’s own library. And at the University of Missouri-Rolla, which spent the most community service work-study dollars in the state, most students never leave campus—instead they staff the school’s golf course and financial aid office. Bob Whites, the school’s director of financial assistance, reasons that “all these qualify as community service, because the facilities serve the community”—a distressingly common refrain. At Florida Memorial College, which runs mentoring and financial-advice clinics in Ft. Lauderdale, financial aid director Brian Phillips also counts as community service answering phones on campus. “[It’s] a community contact,” he claims. “Once the student picks up that phone, it’s community service.”

The woeful state of work-study community service on many campuses can be traced directly to college presidents and financial aid administrators, who bristle at the thought of federal regulation. “Presidents at many prominent institutions take an adamant position that work-study is strictly financial aid”—despite the law—“and reject government telling them how to spend it, regardless of what they do,” says Robert A. Corrigan, president of San Francisco State University and chairman of the university presidents’ committee on America Reads.

To fend off measures such as Wofford’s and Clinton’s requires a powerful higher education lobby, referred to collectively as “One Dupont Circle,” after the black-glass-and-marble building in Washington that many of its component institutions occupy. The lobby encompasses about 100 groups, whose size, wealth, and organization, make them a considerable force for good (increasing support for scientific research) as well as ill (deterring community-service requirements). “Of the nine federal student-aid programs for undergraduates,” says Terry Hartle, a lobbyist for the American Education Council, which represents college presidents, “I think work-study is the second-most difficult for colleges and universities to administer because so many rules and regulations complicate programs like community service.”

Those who oppose requiring schools to spend work-study dollars on community service generally trot out the same handful of arguments. The first is the “heavy-paperwork” claim. But while regulations do add to a college’s administrative burdens, service-minded universities such as Nova Southeastern and Case Western Reserve seem to manage just fine.

A corollary to this argument is that it’s too much trouble to get students from campus into the community. “The studies are so rigorous here,” says Jane Smith, MIT’s student employment director, “that when they have to travel off campus, it’s really hard for them. They can only afford a certain number of hours a week.” While it’s true that some students would lose study time if MIT were to boost their service commitment, there’s a certain dog-ate-my-homework quality to Smith’s excuse, which becomes clear when you measure the school’s record against the competition. After all, Stanford, an equally challenging school, places 22 percent of its students in service jobs. And Harvard University, just across town from MIT, achieves a rate about six times higher than MIT’s. “I don’t think Harvard students have any more time than MIT students,” responds Harvard’s student employment director.

Another common argument holds that the community-service requirement degrades work-study students. “It says that if you’re low-income, we’re going to force you to do service,” says one financial aid director, who requested anonymity. But this is a curious complaint, unless the on-campus alternatives—washing dishes, answering phones, or caddying for school administrators—can be considered to enhance self-esteem.

It’s hard not to conclude that complaints about burdensome regulations and dubious issues of fairness have less to do with red tape and social justice than with the desire of many colleges to exploit the cheap labor that work-study students supply. Many schools, especially the most expensive, have come to depend on it for low-cost help in cafeterias, libraries, and gymnasiums—jobs that might otherwise be filled with outside workers who’d demand decent wages and benefits, and in some cases would join unions. “The university administrators and lobbyists are saying, We want these jobs to help our budget, not to help our country or community,’” says former Sen. Wofford. And because the federal government subsidizes 75 percent of the cost of a work-study student, the price schools pay is next to nothing.

This relates to another deceptive argument which administrators summon: that forcing colleges to meet community-service requirements would hurt low-income students. Money spent hiring non-student workers, so the argument goes, would mean less money available for financial aid for needy students. Joe Russo, financial aid director at Notre Dame, says that if the community-service requirement were raised, “We might have to raise tuition to pay for it.” But this argument rests on several flimsy premises. First, that the money saved is plowed back into needs-based scholarships. It isn’t. Increasingly, the nation’s top schools are beefing up merit scholarships—tuition discounts for the students with the highest SAT scores, who boost a school’s ranking and prestige, but typically come from affluent families. The second faulty assumption is that all student workers would be replaced. But as anyone who’s held a work-study job knows, a good chunk of campus-based assignments are make-work jobs—such as alphabetizing tests or cleaning gym equipment—that schools wouldn’t actually pay to replace. In fact, some students seek out jobs that require almost no work at all. “I wanted a job where I could sit and get my homework done,” explains Blake Brewster, a sophomore engineering major at Notre Dame. “That was at the information desk at the student center.” The argument that reassigning some of these students to community service would drive up tuition prices is “an economic Rube Goldberg,” quips Donald Kennedy, the former president of Stanford University.

In fact, schools are actually swimming in work-study funding, thanks to the Clinton-era expansion of the program from $757 million five years ago to more than $1 billion today. College financial aid officers are so flush with work-study dollars that they’re awarding grants to middle- and upper-middle-class students simply by process of elimination. “Colleges suddenly have all this work-study money,” says one higher education lobbyist, “and they really don’t have any place else to spend it.”

These economic pseudo-arguments are particularly galling when they come from elite private schools, which garner a disproportionate share of federal work-study funding. “The further West you go, the less well-funded are the work-study programs,” says President Corrigan of San Francisco State. “If you look at the 100 schools that receive the most work-study money, they tend to be East Coast and private.” Indeed, the top 20 U.S. News colleges and universities represent fewer than 1 percent of participating schools, yet receive nearly 6 percent of the money. That’s because the top schools have rigged the system to their benefit. Many state schools and community colleges, especially in the Sun Belt, didn’t exist at the advent of the work-study program in 1965. The predominantly elite, private schools that wielded influence structured the program in such a way that they received the largest allotment, a sweetheart deal they’ve managed to extend through grandfathering provisions each time the formula is amended. “There’s an old-boy network,” says Arthur Hauptman, a public-policy consultant who specializes in higher education finance. “Schools that have been in the longest get the most money.” Even the new money that Clinton won for work-study went disproportionately to schools like the University of Notre Dame, Brown University, Dartmouth College, Princeton University, and MIT, which spent the least amount of money on community service.

Another frequent excuse (particularly among schools with poor service records) is that their students do plenty of volunteer work outside the work-study program. And indeed, some do. At Notre Dame, for instance, 75 to 80 percent of students get involved in community service at some point during their undergraduate years. But this supresses an important distinction by conflating volunteerism with work-study: Community agencies and nonprofits agree that work-study students are preferable to volunteers because they’re more reliable—after all, their financial aid, and by extension their college education, depends on their showing up for work. “I know a work-study kid is going to commit for a full semester,” says Karen Baker, who coordinated DC Reads, a citywide tutorial program that employs work-study students to teach children to read. “A volunteer might not. Unfortunately, the truth is that as the semester proceeds, student volunteers have midterms, finals, and other legitimate obligations that lead to the inevitable flake factor.”

Student volunteers are most valuable for one-time, group-intensive projects, such as cleaning a park or painting a school. But they are far less suited than work-study students for projects that require regular, longer-term commitments, such as tutoring children. “Studies prove that unless there’s a minimum of 20 tutoring sessions, it’s rare to have an impact on a kid,” Baker says. “[Work-study students] have a much higher likelihood of sticking with the experience. Frankly, pay does that for a college student who’s balancing multiple priorities.”

Not only is pay an incentive to stick with a commitment, it’s an incentive to seek one out. Howard University incorporated DC Reads into its work-study program during the 1997 school year and made the smart decision to pay tutors about $13 an hour (compared with $8 or $9 for typical jobs on campus). Because schools are given broad discretion in how they use “campus-based” financial aid like work-study, this is easy to do. Participation in Howard’s DC Reads program skyrocketed over the next two years, peaking at 138 tutors in 2000. Due partly to this success, 20 percent of Howard’s work-study funds that year were spent on community service. Unfortunately, the economic incentive works both ways. When Howard established an even pay scale for all of its work-study jobs this year—it felt it wasn’t attracting enough on-campus workers—the number of tutors dropped to 27.

So why do some colleges place so many work-study kids in community service while others (often elite schools) can’t seem to manage? Part of the answer, nearly everyone agrees, is commitment. There is a fundamental philosophical disagreement in the higher-education community about the purpose of federal work-study aid and whether anything should be asked of its recipients. Schools that value service don’t have much trouble finding students to perform it. Schools that don’t complain that it can’t be done.

Another factor is the “town-gown” divide. Less-selective schools tend to draw students from their immediate geographic region, and have institutional cultures more naturally committed to the community than their elite counterparts, which tend to attract students from across the country. Many local and regional universities also have schools of education, nursing, and social work, careers in which community service seems more directly applicable than, say, physics or French lit. And finally, the hyper-competitiveness that has arisen in elite schools in recent decades has pushed aside “soft” concerns, such as community service, which get in the way of what has become their driving goal: maximizing research funding and ascending the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, which don’t measure service, making it that much easier for competitive schools to ignore.

Instead of lagging behind other schools on community service, elite universities could be leading the way. The fact that Stanford already does so suggests others could too if they had the motivation, which Washington could provide with a few simple steps.

First, shame them. The McCain-Bayh bill, for instance, requires the Education Department to issue an annual report to Congress on which colleges and universities aren’t in compliance. (A similar strategy was used in the 1980s to publicize the names of individuals who defaulted on certain types of student loans; default rates immediately plummeted.) Congress should go further and publish every school’s work-service record, so that those exceeding the minimum gain public recognition. U.S. News could help by incorporating these figures into its rankings.

Congress should also tighten the work-study law so that schools can’t get away with counting as community service such jobs as ushering at football games. And lawmakers should demand that the Department of Education start enforcing the rules. Were university presidents convinced that their federal financial aid was in jeopardy, they’d quickly comply. The government could also help by paying 100 percent of the wages of students who work in legitimate community-service jobs. Currently, it meets 75 percent of work-study students’ wage; the rest is left to the nonprofit or community agencies employing them, many of which can’t afford it. If the federal government were to meet the full cost—as it does now for reading and math tutoring—thousands of new opportunities for service would suddenly open up.

All of which would solve the real problem. Because it’s not that students don’t want to serve; it’s that schools don’t give them enough opportunity.

Joshua Green

Joshua Green is a national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek, a CNN political analyst, and the author of Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Nationalist Uprising. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2001 to 2003.