Americans are increasingly concerned about two seemingly unrelated issues: a distressing lack of civic literacy and informed civic engagement in the general public, and the escalating burden of student-loan debt. We could make significant progress on both of those issues with an updated GI Bill.
Late in World War II, Congress passed the original GI Bill, which provided a wide range of benefits for returning veterans, including subsidies that allowed them to obtain low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans that could be used to start a business, and cash payments for tuition and living expenses to attend a college or vocational-training program.
It began as an effort to reward those who had been willing to risk their lives for their country, and it was expensive, but by all accounts it was a major political, humanitarian, and economic success. It contributed significantly to the creation of a skilled work force, moved thousands of people into the middle class, and was a spur to long-term economic growth.
In 2008 the Post-9/11 GI Bill began offering educational and training benefits to veterans who had served on active duty after September 10, 2001. Certainly defending the United States is an important goal, but military service is only one aspect of that defense. It is equally important that citizens understand just what our military is protecting. Citizenship is more than residence; patriotism requires informed engagement by people who have earned the right to be considered citizens. Providing that second kind of defense — defense of the American system of law and government — requires a populace that is educated and engaged in civic responsibility. It is increasingly obvious that patchwork efforts to raise civic literacy are not producing that result.
Our proposal builds on the laudable efforts of those — including Gen. Stanley McChrystal — who have called for a renewal of national service. While military service has been shown to significantly increase voting rates and other forms of civic engagement, fewer Americans serve in the military than in past generations, and we need to consider what sorts of additional programs and opportunities might begin to change the civic culture.
We propose a voluntary national-service program for high-school graduates. They would be paid minimum wage during a one-year “tour of duty.” At the end of that year, assuming satisfaction of the requirements, participants would receive stipends sufficient to pay tuition, room, and board for two years at a public college or trade school. The public-service requirement would be satisfied through employment with a government agency or nonprofit organization focused on civic improvement. In addition, students would be required to attend and pass a civics course to be developed by the U.S. Department of Education in cooperation with the Campaign for the Civic Mission of the Schools, a nonprofit coalition that promotes civic learning in elementary and secondary classrooms.
How much such a federally funded program would cost depends on the number of students who choose to participate. However, if properly structured and monitored, it should improve upon the outcomes of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which has cost taxpayers $30 billion since 2009 and which has been criticized for a lack of documentation of graduation rates and for payments made to substandard, for-profit schools.
This program would require a commitment to participate by local units of government, which would make an agreed-upon number of internships and low-level employment opportunities available. The participation of nonprofit organizations would be voluntary (much as is the case with AmeriCorps). Agencies and organizations would have the benefit of free labor, since wages during the year of service would be paid by the federal government.
Students who completed the yearlong program would be allowed to use their benefits at public universities, community colleges, or trade schools. Those institutions would not have to alter their admissions criteria; our proposal is focused upon affordability, not remediation.
What sorts of results might we expect? Since it is likely to be most attractive to those struggling to afford higher education, we could expect broader civic participation from members of populations whose voices are largely missing from today’s civic conversation. A better-educated population should engage in better, more-nuanced policy debates, leading (we hope) to more-thoughtful policy choices. We might even see more-meaningful, issue-oriented political campaigns, with less of the intemperate rhetoric that characterizes messages crafted to appeal to uninformed voters.
This program could also have an enormous and salutary impact on the level of student debt, which has risen beyond $1 trillion, with an average debt of almost $30,000 in 2013.
Student debt constrains individual decision-making in a number of ways, and its growth affects the entire economy. For example, people paying back student loans are less likely to start businesses. Considering that 60 percent of new private-sector jobs are created by small businesses, diminishing the ability to create businesses does considerable harm to the economy.
Debt loads also affect overall consumption. According to research by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, fewer 30-year-olds in general have bought homes since the recession, but the decline has been steeper for people with a history of student-loan debt and has continued even as the housing market has recovered. In an economy that depends upon the ability and willingness of consumers to purchase homes, furniture, automobiles, and other goods, a debt load that effectively precludes such purchases poses a real problem.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has found that three-quarters of the overall shortfall in household formation can be attributed to younger adults, ages 18 to 34. In 2011, 1.3 million more Americans in this age group lived with their parents than in 2007. Although it is impossible to determine the relative contribution of student-loan debt and the economic downturn to that phenomenon, student debt is clearly implicated. Any program that reduces the need to borrow can only improve the situation.
According to a report from Zillow, the relatively few millennials who are thriving economically are the ones whose parents are able to subsidize college tuition or a down payment on a home. Help with education and buying a home were the two primary ways in which the original GI Bill created upward social mobility. Estimates are that each new household leads to $145,000 of economic impact. If student debt is keeping just a third of those two million young Americans from living on their own — a reasonable, if undocumented, assumption — that adds up to a $100-billion loss or delay in economic activity.
A national public-service program would reduce current levels of student-loan debt, allow motivated students from poorer families to avoid a choice between forgoing higher education and assuming sizable debt, offer government agencies and participating nonprofit groups additional resources with which to serve the public and expand civil society, and increase civic competence and engagement. What are we waiting for?
Sheila Suess Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. Matt Impink, who holds a master’s degree in public administration from IUPUI, is manager of policy and political affairs at the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. This article originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education on September 8, 2015. It is re-published here with permission from the author.