Mandatory community service to graduate —
A good idea?

Analysis of HB 22 – 2013 Texas Legislature

Should college students be required to fulfill 20 hours of “unpaid public service” as a prerequisite for graduation from a Texas higher education institution?

This question may soon be debated in the Texas Legislature thanks to House Bill 22 recently filed by Rep. Martinez Fischer. The bill establishes a new, unfunded Service to Texas Program at each Texas college, university, junior college and technical institute to oversee this proposed new undergraduate graduation requirement. Students seeking a non-degree certificate involving 60 hours of undergraduate study would also be included in the mandate.

On the surface, such a requirement might seem a real boon to the nonprofit community and government social service agencies, but who would truly benefit? According to the bill, the beneficiaries of the volunteer’s time are to be “needy or deserving individuals or the public, as determined by the institution the student attends.” It also provides that “A student shall select one or more of the organizations or entities (approved) to supervise and document the student’s performance of the required public service.”

This would be required for students enrolled as of September 2014. It is uncertain whether the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has reviewed or endorsed this proposal and whether the legislative analysis process will assign a “fiscal note”, or cost to state government and the educational institutions, to implement the proposal. Certainly, significant costs at the college administrative level are to be expected.

Government has long encouraged volunteer service as a way to enrich community life and to address social problems at the local level. Many colleges currently have service learning courses as requirements for some degrees. There is, however, a big difference between service freely given and that which is required.

In the nonprofit community, volunteerism is an action taken by individuals who choose to donate time, service and/or expertise on behalf of a shared value or mission. Forced community service – which this bill would authorize – is something typically associated with court sentencing, probation or punishment for crimes and misdemeanors. How is it that the same might now suddenly be viewed as good for students? Unwilling participants of any activity do not make ideal volunteers, and merely being a student does not automatically guarantee that the student would be an appropriate public “face” of a service organization. Most nonprofits train their volunteers for long-term service and want more control over who “shows up” to serve. Forcing students to volunteer short-term time to activities that do not interest them does not necessarily guarantee they will become better citizens in the future.

Which office at each university or community college would design and administer the Service to Texas Program? What criteria would be used to determine the program’s beneficiaries? Who within each participating nonprofit organization or government agency would train, monitor and verify each student’s service? And would students be allowed to select an organization not on the pre-approved list or representing a generally unpopular cause? Would volunteer service in a student’s hometown count toward the requirement? Just qualifying and documenting the service could be a bureaucratic nightmare, and bungled or disputed records keeping could prevent a student from graduating.

According to the bill,” needy individuals and the public” would be the beneficiaries of the Service to Texas Program. Why not specifically include community arts or cultural organizations, private schools, scouting groups, youth sports leagues or churches? What about student rights and preferences or parental approval? Work or study conflicts? What about safety issues and liability?

Part-time, older, veteran, married and low-income students make up a large portion of today’s college students. Given that nearly one out of four college students who drop out do so for financial reasons, it is unlikely that many students can sacrifice work or family duties for community service hours.

While public service is a good thing, should government and universities be forcing students to donate their time and energy to activities unrelated to their areas of study, and only to those organizations selected by their schools? Are local nonprofits being asked to serve as classrooms of service learning at their own risk and financial expense?

It is uncertain whether H.B. 22 will have the support of universities, nonprofit organizations and the majority of currently enrolled students. Good or bad, requiring community service as a requirement for college graduation should generate an interesting debate.


The following articles are a sampling of available online resources that explore various sides of this issue.

Read about the benefits of college required community service.

• In “Volunteering and Community Service”, Steven Rathgeb Smith provides an overview of the benefits and pitfalls of required community service, including constitutional issues and liabilities. Read more

• This article has a section on how untrained volunteers hurt nonprofit organizations Read more

• This blog discusses problems with universities going in the direction of service learning as related to the “Campuses of Service” program (GIVE Act), passed in 2009 by the U.S. House. Read more

© 2013, Richard W. Meyer, All Rights Reserved.


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