Free College if You Serve

If we expanded national service, every American could afford to seek a bachelor’s degree—and have the support they need to get to graduation and into a career.

Matt Hudson-Flege was a high school senior when the 9/11 terror attacks occurred. Filled with a desire to do something for his country, he considered joining the Army, but decided he was “too much of a hippie,” he recalls. Going straight to college didn’t seem quite right either, though he applied to a few. 

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Then someone told him about the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), an AmeriCorps program that puts small teams of young people to work on short-term service projects at nonprofits around the country. He signed up, and soon after graduating from high school found himself working at a Salvation Army food pantry in the seedy Tenderloin District of San Francisco. 

The firsthand view of urban homelessness was eye-opening for the 19-year-old from middle-class suburban Cincinnati. So too was learning to live with 10 other NCCC members from a wide range of backgrounds in a cramped halfway-house apartment. When it was his turn to cook for the group, for instance, he decided to make chili the way he had learned to growing up: just ground beef with cinnamon and other spices. The roommate he was sharing cooking duties with, a West Virginian from a single-parent family, had other ideas. Into the pot she threw beans, corn, peppers, and tomatoes. 

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m making chili,” answered the young woman. 

“That’s not chili!” he exclaimed.

“Yeah it is,” she replied.

After asking his other roommates, who also hailed from different parts of the country, Hudson-Flege realized that “99 percent of America doesn’t eat chili like we do in Cincinnati.” It was such a revelation that he still remembers the incident almost 20 years later. “What else about the world do I not understand?” Hudson-Flege, now a research assistant professor at Clemson University, recalls thinking. 

More revelatory experiences followed. At the team’s next assignment, helping out at an elementary school in a low-income neighborhood in Sacramento, Hudson-Flege caught glimpses of dysfunction in the families of some of the school kids that “made me wonder how we can make a difference given how tough their lives are.” From there the crew was sent to build trails in Big Sur, then to plant trees in Salt Lake City—missions where he learned, among other things, how to use a jackhammer. As a final project, the team put on a three-day event for high school seniors in Virginia City, California—an organizational challenge far more complex than any he had ever experienced and, he says, “a huge confidence builder for me.” 

Joining NCCC required Hudson-Flege to defer an admission he’d received from Eckerd College in Florida, which made his parents fear he might never go to college at all. They needn’t have worried. After finishing AmeriCorps in 2003, not only did he enroll at Eckerd, but the college doubled his merit aid in recognition of his service. He also had a Segal AmeriCorps Education Award, a GI Bill–type college scholarship that AmeriCorps veterans are granted after completing a year of service, to further defray costs. He graduated from Eckerd four years later, debt-free.

But he wasn’t done serving. After a stint in the Peace Corps and eight years with a Catholic antipoverty nonprofit in Cincinnati, Hudson-Flege earned a PhD from Clemson with an on-brand thesis topic: the long-term civic engagement of NCCC veterans. Those who entered the program with the least interest in public service, he found, saw their interest grow the most. These days, in addition to his research post at Clemson, he runs a chapter of College Advising Corps, a nonprofit that places college-educated AmeriCorps members from lower-income backgrounds in high schools serving lower-income families to help students navigate the daunting college admissions and financial aid process.

Hudson-Flege is certainly on the far edge of the “National service can change your life” curve. In general, however, his experience is typical. Numerous studies show that AmeriCorps programs have positive impacts not only on a wide range of societal problems, but also on AmeriCorps members themselves, including helping them afford and graduate from college and inspiring them to choose careers in public service. 

National service is also having a moment politically. The American Rescue Plan Joe Biden signed in March included an extra $1 billion for AmeriCorps, an amount that nearly matches the agency’s annual budget. And a key component of the American Families Plan, the massive spending bill Democrats want to pass via reconciliation this fall, is a new “Civilian Climate Corps” that aims to put disadvantaged young people, military veterans, and others to work on environmental projects while building skills that will help them get jobs in the green energy sector. Separately, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, Biden’s closest friend in the Senate, has been pushing legislation to boost the size of AmeriCorps, from 75,000 today to 225,000. Meanwhile, the New York Times editorial board has endorsed retired General Stanley McCrystal’s plan for Washington to create a million national service slots. 

Curiously, however, in public discussions over how much the American Families Plan should invest to make college free, the subject of national service almost never comes up. That’s a mistake. Massively expanding national service isn’t incidental to the goal of helping students—especially those who need it most—get into and through college. It’s key to achieving it. And encouraging students to give something to help make America better isn’t, or shouldn’t be, incidental to how we judge the value of our public investments in higher education. It should be central to it. 

The fusing of college aid with voluntary national service has been essential to AmeriCorps ever since then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton conceived of the idea during the 1992 presidential race. His stump speech that year included a promise to create a “domestic GI Bill” in which anyone could do a year of service and receive a college scholarship. It was “the most consistently popular applause line of the ’92 campaign,” writes Steven Waldman in The Bill, his book on the passage of the legislation that created AmeriCorps, which Clinton signed into law in 1993.

From very early on, however, the idea had enemies. In 1995, newly elected Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich called AmeriCorps “coercive voluntarism” and tried to eliminate it. That effort failed thanks to Republican Senate moderates and the program’s design, which was cleverly structured to garner bipartisan support: Most AmeriCorps funds flow through state-based commissions whose members are appointed by governors, a patronage opportunity chief executives of both parties came to appreciate. One of those governors was George W. Bush of Texas, who, when he became president, increased the number of AmeriCorps members from 50,000 to 75,000. Barack Obama signed legislation authorizing the program to grow to 250,000 members, though he could never get Congress to appropriate the funds. Instead, Tea Party Republicans tried to zero out its budget. They, too, failed. So did Donald Trump in his effort to kill AmeriCorps, despite enjoying GOP majorities in both houses of Congress for half his term.

Because it has so frequently been in the cross hairs of conservative budgeteers, AmeriCorps has been under enormous pressure to justify its existence. Its programs have consequently been subject to considerable rigorous evaluations. 

Those evaluations show that when it comes to fulfilling the pledge every new member takes to “get things done,” AmeriCorps has been notably successful. The one-on-one tutoring efforts its members conduct significantly boost reading and math scores and attendance for the poor and minority students they tutor, compared to control groups. The workforce training nonprofit Year Up, staffed by AmeriCorps members, increases the earnings of the young adults from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds who receive the training by $7,000 to $8,000 per year compared to similar young people who don’t participate. The Big Brothers Big Sisters program, also heavily staffed by AmeriCorps members, cut the rate at which young minority participants initiate drug use by 70 percent compared to similar young adults. Low-income high school students who are counseled by College Advising Corps members (like those in the program Matt Hudson-Flege runs) are 18 percent more likely to apply to a college or university and 19 percent more likely to be accepted than are similar students who aren’t counseled. 

Encouraging students to give something to help make America better isn’t, or shouldn’t be, incidental to how we judge the value of our public investments in higher education. It should be central to it.

The evaluative literature on the effect of AmeriCorps on members themselves is not as extensive. But a 2018 study by the nonprofit group Service Year Alliance and Burning Glass Technologies, a labor market analytics firm, suggests the impact is substantial. The study compared the resumes of 70,000 veterans of AmeriCorps and other service programs, like the Peace Corps, to 100,000 otherwise similar peer resumes. It found that 24 percent of the program veterans who didn’t have a bachelor’s degree when they served went on, like Hudson-Flege, to earn one, compared to 11 percent of the peer group. It also found that after 10 years, 23 percent of the vets had careers in education, and community and social service occupations—again like Hudson-Flege—compared to 7 percent of their peers. 

Other studies show that serving in AmeriCorps builds members’ skills and personal networks in ways that help them secure future jobs, especially in the nonprofits they embed in. Indeed, the program operates as a kind of “de facto workforce development system” for the nonprofit sector, writes the longtime national service expert Shirley Sagawa of the Center for American Progress. This is no small advantage. According to the Johns Hopkins Nonprofit Employment Project, nonprofits employ the nation’s third-largest private-sector workforce, behind only retail trade and manufacturing.

Despite its record of boosting college and career attainment (for both its members and those they serve), the idea of greatly expanding AmeriCorps has almost never been raised during the past few years of intense discussions among liberals about how to make college free, or at least far more affordable. Instead, that discussion has largely centered on three big policy ideas to achieve that goal.

For a long time, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren dominated the debate with their free college proposals, under which the federal government would give states enough money to allow their public two- and four-year colleges and universities to charge no tuition. But as this magazine has long argued—and as progressive policy wonks have since come to understand—the Sanders/Warren plan leads to a nightmare of unintended consequences. It would unjustly reward those states (mostly red) that cut college funding and let tuition rise, while perversely penalizing states (mostly blue) that did the right thing by spending more to keep tuition low. It would heavily subsidize elite public research universities that cater to affluent white people, while short-changing regional universities and community colleges, which disproportionately educate non-wealthy students of color and have less money to begin with. And by excluding private nonprofit colleges, the Sanders/Warren plan would leave out hundreds of schools that serve racially and economically diverse students, including many historically Black institutions.

In part because of these problems, the Biden White House has emphasized a different idea: free community college. This approach is politically and morally easier to make the case for than free four-year college. While almost every American today needs some kind of quality post-secondary credential to have a decent shot at a middle-class life, we aren’t yet at the point where every American needs a four-year degree. Nor does every American want one. And a lot of those who don’t voted for Donald Trump.

That said, bachelor’s degrees do confer much greater lifetime earnings on average than do sub-baccalaureate credentials, and they are disproportionately earned by middle- and upper-income whites. So there remains a profound need to do something to address the inequities of the four-year college system. 

Fortunately, there is growing consensus among Democrats in Washington, including Biden himself, to support a third big idea that will help on that front: doubling the size of the Pell Grant. In 1975, the Pell covered 80 percent of the cost of a public four-year degree. Now it covers only 30 percent. Doubling the award, from the current maximum of $6,495 to $12,990 per year, would make college more affordable for millions of students. It would also largely avoid the pitfalls of the Sanders/Warren plan because the grants would be targeted at the lower- and lower-middle-income students who need them the most. 

It would not be a panacea, however, for several reasons. First, without tough federal regulation, states will be tempted to cut their education budgets by the amount of the increased Pell funding, leaving federal taxpayers with a hefty tab and Pell recipients no better off. Second, a $12,990 annual Pell award would barely cover in-state tuition at most public four-year colleges and universities. Students would still be on the hook for rent, food, books, and other incidentals—costs many lower-income students can’t afford. 

Finally, while doubling the Pell Grant would help disadvantaged students afford college, it likely wouldn’t do much, on its own, to help them graduate—and without a sheepskin, a college education isn’t worth nearly as much in the market. College dropout rates for low-income and minority students are alarmingly high, and unaffordable tuition costs are only one cause. Living expenses like housing and food are another big factor. So too is the fact that lower-income students enter college with less preparation and social capital than affluent whites. They typically attend high schools with fewer resources, like veteran teachers. They usually lack college-educated parents and networks of friends from similar backgrounds who can help them navigate the college bureaucracy or connect them to summer jobs and internships. With relatively few adults in their lives who have good-paying careers, they have less direct knowledge of what those careers are, much less how a college degree can lead to one. The latter is astonishingly important: Students who grasp that a college degree is essential for a desired career are six times more likely to receive a college degree than those who do not.

A major expansion of national service would address all of these problems. Done in concert with higher Pell awards and free community college, it would create a system where every American can not only afford to seek a bachelor’s degree but has the support they need to get to graduation and into a career. 

To understand how it would work, imagine you are a high school senior from a low-income Pell-eligible family who is interested in earning a four-year degree. Legislation has passed doubling the Pell Grant, making community college tuition free, and expanding AmeriCorps. You enroll in community college and two years later earn an associate’s degree with virtually no out-of-pocket expenses. You then serve two years in AmeriCorps. Now you have two years’ worth of Segal award dollars plus two more of Pell funding you can use to pay for your junior and senior year at a bachelor’s-granting institution. Because Segal awards are pegged by statute to the maximum size of the Pell Grant, you would have a total of $25,980 ($12,990 x 2) to put toward your education per year. That is more than enough to cover in-state tuition plus fees, room, and board at the average public university, which is currently $25,864. And, as the Burning Glass research and other studies suggest, the skills, relationships, and sense of purpose you garnered during your time in service mean your likelihood of graduating is considerably higher than if you had not served. So too your chances of landing a job after college, especially in the nonprofit sector, if that’s what you want.

What better way to bridge the partisan divides that are tearing this country apart than providing an opportunity for Americans from all walks of life to serve together for a year or two?

Washington could take other steps to make national service an even more appealing route to achieving free college. While AmeriCorps is sometimes stereotyped as dominated by elite whites, demographically its membership is diverse—Black people actually make up 22 percent of participants, a higher share than of the U.S. population as a whole. Still, more could be done to recruit lower-income and minority members. Bumping up the size of the Segal award would be a huge help. So would extending the temporary boost in members’ modest stipends that Biden’s American Rescue Plan mandated. Giving members more and better skills training and college credit for what they learn could let them earn degrees and certificates faster after they finish their service. Nebraska recently passed a law offering in-state tuition at its public universities to any AmeriCorps veteran, regardless of where that person served or is originally from. Incentivizing every state to follow Nebraska’s lead would vastly expand the universe of affordable colleges AmeriCorps alumni could apply to. Some colleges and universities match the Segal awards AmeriCorps veterans bring with them, as Eckerd did for Matt Hudson-Flege (colleges that do earn points on the Washington Monthly’s college rankings). Washington could write rules to encourage more colleges to do the same. 

If expanding national service is so crucial to a successful “free college” agenda, why hasn’t it been part of the discussion? One reason is that the advocates who focus on higher education reform and those in the national service space occupy different career silos and don’t talk much to each other. A bigger reason is that making national service a vehicle for college affordability would be expensive. The federal government would have to fund not only the extra Segel awards but also the costs of putting more national service members in the field. The plan sponsored by Coons to increase AmeriCorps to 225,000 members annually would cost $8 billion over three years. With centrist Democrats like Joe Manchin pressing to limit the overall size of the American Families Plan, it’s easy to see why the idea of vastly expanding national service opportunities hasn’t gained more traction.

But this price tag is misleading. Much like with infrastructure spending, national service ultimately more than pays for itself. A 2020 study by the consulting firm ICF found that every dollar the federal government spends on AmeriCorps returns $3.50 in taxes received or saved and more than $17 when benefits to recipients and society are factored in. These cost savings may not be “scoreable” by the Congressional Budget Office, but they are savings nonetheless. 

And then there are the unscorable benefits a massively expanded national service program would bring to the country. Imagine how much headway hundreds of thousands of new national service members—be they recent high school dropouts, aspiring college students, college grads, or retirees—could make against America’s unmet needs, from disadvantaged elementary school students who require tutoring to catch up academically to the frail elderly who need meals delivered in order to be able to stay in their homes. Consider how a more robust pipeline of skilled talent to the nonprofit sector would help in implementing the American Families Plan and its trillions of dollars in social service spending, much of which would be carried out by nonprofit groups. 

In The Bill, Waldman describes AmeriCorps as “the Swiss Army knife of social programs” because it addresses so many of the country’s problems. Its proven ability to “get things done” is the strongest reason to expand it. The U.S. military’s primary purpose is defending the country, but it has also provided a route to the middle class for millions of Black and low-income white Americans who have worn the uniform. So, too, can AmeriCorps offer a path to higher education and remunerative, fulfilling careers for those who serve. And because Segal awards, like GI Bill benefits, are earned and available to anyone willing to serve, regardless of race or class, it is harder for conservative politicians to spin them as giveaways to “those people.”

The universal nature of AmeriCorps is key to another profound advantage that could come from massively expanding the program: strengthening a deeply frayed democracy. What better way to bridge the partisan divides that are tearing this country apart than providing an opportunity for Americans from all walks of life to serve together for a year or two? 

Because Segal AmeriCorps Education Awards, like GI Bill benefits, are earned and available to anyone willing to serve, regardless of race or class, it is harder for conservative politicians to spin them as giveaways to “those people.”

Like the original GI Bill, a massive expansion of AmeriCorps could make institutions of higher education themselves less elite focused and more democratic. Colleges and universities cater to affluent families largely because those families can pay tens of thousands of dollars a year in tuition. If AmeriCorps veterans started showing up en masse with significant sums, colleges would be fools not to start catering to them, too, and in doing so, start admitting more students from modest backgrounds. That in itself might boost the graduation rates of these students, who often drop out, research shows, because they feel they don’t fit in. 

AmeriCorps veterans armed with more money for tuition would create other beneficial dynamics. For instance, regional public universities, which have been struggling to attract students with money in recent years compared to more selective flagships, also tend to offer more public service majors in areas like education, health care, and social work, as this year’s Washington Monthly rankings show. Since those are precisely the kinds of careers AmeriCorps veterans prefer, regional universities would suddenly have a competitive advantage. To keep their Segal award dollars flowing, college presidents would have an incentive, which they currently do not, to use their hefty influence over members of Congress to champion national service. This would create what political scientists call a positive “policy feedback loop”: a new policy leading to more political support for
that policy. 

There is a reason this magazine has long ranked America’s colleges and universities on their record of both recruiting and graduating non-wealthy students and of encouraging all students to spend time serving their country and communities. It is because we believe that equality of opportunity and active citizenship are not separable—a view shared by the Gates Foundation’s Postsecondary Value Commission in its recent report (see “What Is the Value of a College Degree?,” page 12). It’s no accident that two of the great democratic expansions of higher education in U.S. history happened during periods of mass mobilization: the creation of the land grant college system during the Civil War and the GI Bill during World War II. The third great expansion, the 1965 Higher Education Act, which for the first time provided federal financial aid to any aspiring student who lacked the means to go to college, passed at the height of the civil rights movement. 

In the decades since, we have allowed our higher education system—indeed, our entire country—to become captured by wealth and privilege. But America may now be on the verge of another great moment of higher education reform, itself the result of years of public activism. By massively expanding national service we can ensure that these reforms succeed and endure.

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Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. He is writing a book on America's involvement in the Greek War of Independence.