Answering our country's call

Young Americans are seeking national and community service opportunities in numbers that could produce a next Greatest Generation.  We have both observed this trend since 9/11, but without a serious national effort that moves beyond the small scale of current programs, we risk losing their idealism and talents right at a time when our country needs them the most.

In 2011, applications for programs funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service numbered more than a half million for only 80,000 positions. The Peace Corps regularly has four times as many applicants as slots.  Service organizations like Teach for America and City Year have acceptance rates that rival some of the most selective colleges in the country. 

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Citizen service is in the American DNA, but the idea has never fulfilled its promise.  Both George Washington and James Madison envisioned a national university that would bind the Union together through the education of its citizens.  After the Civil War, the federal government supported the creation of Howard University in Washington, DC to help bring the rights and responsibilities of citizenship to African Americans, and the university would play a leading role in the civil rights movement. 

But the national service idea has been a story of fits and starts.  Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps deployed 3 million unemployed men over the course of nearly a decade to conserve public lands and save themselves from festering in the streets.  But World War II called Americans to another form of service and the CCC died. 

None of the other national service experiments that followed the CCC would ever rival it. John Kennedy’s dream for a 100,000-person Peace Corps that would engage a million Americans in countries around the world over a decade became an 8,000-person a year experiment that turned most applicants away.  The same is true for Lyndon Johnson’s VISTA, Richard Nixon’s Senior Corps, Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps, and George W. Bush’s Freedom Corps.  It has been a story of a big idea unfulfilled.

That must change.  As members of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform, we see how the big idea of national and community service remains strongly bipartisan, with former senators, governors, mayors, and White House officials from both parties believing that a service year for all 18-28 year olds is an idea whose time has come. 

Through the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute, military leaders like General Stanley McChrystal and General Ann Dunwoody, and civilian leaders like Madeleine Albright and Condi Rice are calling for a new rite of passage.   Young Americans from different backgrounds, geographies, races, ethnicities and income levels would be brought together in transformative service experiences that would renew our confidence that America can solve big problems again.

We see this service ethic close to home.  Last year, Howard University was one of the top college sources for Peace Corps volunteers, ranking 16th among medium-size schools.  It became the first historically black college and university named to the list.   Although political gridlock and hyper-partisanship have left a bad taste for many about Washington, it is clear that younger Americans are not giving up on the dream to serve their country.

There are clear ways forward.  In 2009, a bipartisan majority in both houses of Congress passed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which authorized 250,000 national service opportunities, up from the 80,000.  Congress and the president should act now to fulfill this promise, so a generation of Millennials are not needlessly turned away.

Cisco has invested in a new technology platform – a kind of national service exchange -- that will enable young people to find national service opportunities.  Colleges and nonprofits will be able to post positions.  Funding would come from national, state and local governments, the private sector, and crowd-sourcing. 

Obama instructed 17 departments and agencies to expand national service opportunities and Iowa Governor Branstad (R) is working to marshal existing resources so that national service members can help at-risk youth in the lowest-performing schools, conserve resources on public lands, and improve the transitions of veterans back home.

Colleges are innovating, creating bridge year service programs before college or graduate school to ground education in real-world problem solving.  Tufts, Tulane and the College of William and Mary are powerful examples. 

The big idea of civilian national service will never take hold unless America and its institutions – government, businesses, labor, higher education, nonprofits, philanthropy, and the military – insist, finally, that the time has come.  

Young people are asking to serve their country.  America could use a generation of leaders that knows how to work across party lines and differences to get things done in all sectors of life.  And a new citizenship would restore faith in the promise and fulfillment of American democracy of, by and for the people.

Schmoke is interim provost, vice president and general counsel of Howard University and was mayor of Baltimore from 1987 to 1999.  Bridgeland is co-chairman of the Franklin Project at The Aspen Institute, former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush, and former member of the White House Council for Community Solutions under President Barack Obama.  Both are members of the Commission on Political Reform of the Bipartisan Policy Center.