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Mandatory Voluntary Service, Now With Compensation!

Or: Getting paid to work against your will for free.

In the days following the Presidential election, the Obama team quickly made a transition from campaigning to running some terribly nebulous Office of the President-Elect. On this website, our Dear Leader-Elect proposed a term of mandatory civilian service for high school and college students, perhaps as some odd form of payment for their fervent support of him during his near half-term presidential campaign. The proceeding outcries and proofs of Godwin’s Law led his campaign, er, transition team, to scrub the text and replace it with something a little more palatable.

what came about as a result was a proposal that had been suggested during the third Presidential debate: that, as compensation for their mandatory voluntary service, America’s youths would be given $4,000 to be used towards the cost of college. Disregarding the Orwellian triplespeak of proposing what is in essence paid mandartory voluntary service (I use all three adjectives because it is truly impossible to know what the actual proposed policy is), there are some other problems with this proposal.The first issue is that if this service is in any way mandatory, it would essentially be a draft, except into the PeaceCorps instead of the military. I think that if there is any one thing young people hate more than anything, it’s having authority force them into something they don’t want to do. I will give our President-Elect the benefit of the doubt, and make a guess that it might not be fully mandatory.

The second and much more pertinent issue in regards to this community service is that it is not really rewarding at all. If the goal is to help alleviate the cost of college, it will end up doing a terribly poor job of that. College costs these days are astronomical, and historically costs rise year after year far above inflation, anywhere from 1.2 to 4 times the inflation rate.

This means that it becomes more and more expensive to go to college every year. Much of this is due to rising faculty costs, increased technology, etc. But colleges and Universities are businesses. As such, they respond to the law of supply and demand as any other industry does. As more schools pop up across the country, brought on by constantly increasing rates of high school graduates seeking higher education, they are forced to compete against each other.

Normally, competition between schools would be good, as it should increase quality and lower prices. However there is one great equalizer which keeps the market from decreasing the cost of collge: government. Because of government regulation, school loans are available to pretty much anyone who seeks them, regardless of credit history. This means that in the eyes of the colleges, there is an almost unlimited supply of money available. Granted that the law limits the amount of money that can be borrowed per year by one person, there are always parents to pick up the rest of the tab.

All of this leads to colleges running poor business models, where costs are not constrained. As such, colleges and universities are free to charge pretty much whatever they want. I suspect that colleges, seeing that most students will be given a $4000 credit for community service, will find a way to increase their tution moreso to meet this. I would not surprised to note sudden spikes in the ratio of tuition inflation to general inflation should this plan be enacted. In the end, these price increases will practically make the service mandatory, if one hopes to avoid the high cost of school.

Offering such tax credits in exchange for community service is not the way to alleviate the burden of college costs, whether the service is mandatory or voluntary. As with most other problems, the only way is to remove the government from the equation and let the market do its work.

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