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Opinion: We need a revamped national service program

Other jurisdictions should take inspiration from California and pay students for volunteering
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BELINDA HOANG/THE VARSITY
BELINDA HOANG/THE VARSITY

On January 18, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced the expansion of the state’s public-service-focused pilot program. Officially known as the Californians For All College Corps (CFACC), the program covers 10,000 USD in tuition for students who have completed 450 hours of community service. Newsom’s initiative is currently in place in 45 colleges and universities statewide — including the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles — and is scheduled to begin in the fall of 2022.

There are many reasons to celebrate. The CFACC is a thoughtful, concrete, and forward-thinking policy campaign in a political world that can often feel hopelessly deadlocked. Newsom’s program will help finance postsecondary education for deserving students at a time when many face financial hurdles to attending university, including costly student loans.

But this is just half the benefit. The CFACC program will also help facilitate meaningful community action through volunteer work, while also fostering community and camaraderie amongst participants and, hopefully, society more broadly. Students who are taking part in the program have the option to volunteer in important areas, including COVID-19 recovery, primary and secondary school education, and climate action, while also gaining useful experience. 

“California is a world leader in both higher education and service,” remarked Governor Newsom. “The #CaliforniansForAll College Corps advances these priorities by connecting Californians of different backgrounds with enriching service opportunities throughout the state while making college more affordable for our state’s future leaders. We hope the Corps will be replicated across the nation.”

In a world that is in the throes of a litany of crises, such an announcement is a welcome change of pace. It can often seem that we are on the back foot, politically speaking — that we are rushing from fire to fire in an attempt to put them out. Newsom’s program does just the opposite and is a worthy crusade. 

If the program finds success, one can hope it becomes an option not just across the US but in Canada, too. Why not pay people, particularly the young, to work toward solving Canada’s issues? The benefits are multitudinous. 

Of course, there are the immediate or direct benefits — namely, the on-the-ground impact of programs like AmeriCorps, Habitat for Humanity, and the PeaceCorps in the United States, or the Canada Service Corps in our case. However, expanding and strengthening opportunities and incentives for national service can also work in the long term by levelling the playing field and reducing inequality, while also bringing people together and fostering a general sense of community.

The case for expanding national service offerings is so strong that one might even be willing to take an economic loss in doing so. A fraction of Ontario’s budget could go a long way toward tackling the climate crisis, caring for the elderly, and addressing the ongoing mental health crisis. It is a ‘blue chip’ — reliable — investment. 

However, an economic loss may not even be necessary. A 2013 report by Clive Belfield at Columbia University found that these programs yield social benefits that are not once, not twice, not three times, but nearly four times the costs. Moreover, for taxpayers, the fiscal returns are nearly twice as big as their initial investment.

At the University of Toronto specifically, such a program could be transformative. Not only would the program help combat various issues that are currently in need of attention through an increased number of student volunteers — including issues especially prevalent in Toronto such as affordable housing, homelessness, and income inequality — but it would also lower financial barriers and provide a mechanism for more students to attend university. Such a program would be especially beneficial for those in programs with higher tuition, such as Rotman Commerce. 

Leaders around the world should follow California’s lead and take it upon themselves to pursue such programs if they have not done so already. California may be the perfect place for such a program to take hold because of its largely left-leaning government and strong university system, but other jurisdictions should still take notice. A compensated volunteer service program could provide so many opportunities to students who would not have otherwise been able to get an education. Even if not for that reason, governments should implement these programs to mitigate the crises of today and tomorrow.

William Lloyd is a second-year history and peace, conflict, and justice studies student at Trinity College. He was the co-president of the U of T Model UN Travel Team, an executive team member of the Hart House Debates and Dialogues Committee, and the co-founder and president of the Open Debate Initiative.