Forced service would ill serve the University

The idea of requiring college students to perform community service has gained followers in the last several years. Some smaller schools have even made a graduation requirement of what was once volunteer work.
Such well-meant innovations as service requirements or non-grade evaluations are generally confined to an easily avoidable — or easily found, for students so inclined — fringe of small, progressive private schools. But they sometimes emerge at the University. Of all the Big Ten schools, the University might even be especially fertile ground for a service requirement, given Minnesota’s history of innovative social policy.
Leaders of the America Reads Challenge, for example, have said they would like participation on their program to be a graduation requirement. That would be a mistake.
Community service is, of course, commendable. The University ought to do everything in its power to encourage students and faculty members to be better, more involved citizens. We all ought to do more to improve our community. The America Reads program is an example of the University doing the right thing. There is no excuse for illiteracy in this, the richest and best-educated nation in the history of nations. Yet millions of people, from fifth graders who ought to at least be able to read Goosebumps books to elderly adults who need to read their prescriptions, still cannot read or write.
In the program, some University students are able to tutor children in reading and writing and receive University credit for their efforts. Academic rewards for such useful community service — especially those in which University students can also develop their own skills — should be more readily available than they are now.
But to require community service, like the University requires math or a foreign language, crosses the line from encouraging good citizenship to enforcing a certain form of extracurricular behavior. It would make an academic requirement out of a fundamentally non-academic enterprise. Community service simply does not offer learning equivalent to a course in Hebrew literature or thermodynamics. University students ought to be judged solely on the basis of their college-level learning.
Equity is another issue. Most forms of community service, or what can be called so as long as it is not compelled volunteerism, rely fundamentally on an idea of social justice. Those of us with some advantages, the assumed premise says, have a duty to help those without the advantages. It’s a middle-class conceit, although a useful one. But not all University students fit that assumption. Many work several jobs to earn the minimum $12,000 that tuition and room are expected to cost. Such students are not likely to be materially better off than many of the needy members of the community they would be forced to serve.
The University should certainly do more to reward community service with academic credit or tuition scholarships. But forcing students to give their time oversteps the legitimate bounds of University authority and cheapens the currency of goodwill. Required community service is an idea whose time has gone.