An Urgent Time for a Year Off Campus

College students have a chance to serve their country. Bring on the CoronaCorps.

An illustration of a fabric patch with the word "CoronaCorps" embroidered on it
Shutterstock / The Atlantic

American higher education has coped with major international emergencies before. During World War II, students left in droves to enlist—and then returned, after the war, eager to resume their formal schooling. (In 1947, nearly half of all admitted college students were veterans.) The United States is now suffering through another crisis of enormous magnitude. Congress has already passed $2 trillion in relief and is considering more. And yet colleges and universities from coast to coast appear bent on muddling through—that is, either by reopening their campus despite the dangers or by patching together enough online offerings to put on a facsimile of a fall semester.

This is a dismal choice. What colleges and the federal government should acknowledge is that, for many students, neither option makes sense. Given the nature and scale of the crisis facing the country, college students should be strongly urged to take a break from full-time study and devote the next year to national service, with online courses playing a cameo role.

The United States already has an infrastructure for supporting this: The AmeriCorps program, founded during the Clinton administration, offers stipends that can be applied toward tuition or directly to students. A massive emergency expansion of this program—into what might be called the CoronaCorps—would give the nation’s roughly 20 million public- and private-college students a meaningful year off campus and keep colleges and universities afloat without summoning large numbers of people back to tightly packed classrooms and dorms. CoronaCorps participants would still enroll in a course or two online, but their main focus should be community needs that no one is meeting.

Future educators might assist public-school teachers in everything from tech support to tutoring. Aspiring health-care professionals could assume roles in the national effort to trace the contacts of people who test positive for the coronavirus. Budding environmentalists and naturalists could maintain hiking trails, plant trees, test water quality, and refurbish public campgrounds. Students preparing for a career in disaster relief could be trained to assist in rescues, forest-fire mitigation, and other emergency functions. The artistically inclined could organize outdoor performances. Future social workers could minister to the elderly, if only remotely, or assist in caring for the children of teachers, health-care professionals, and other essential workers. Those headed for roles in hospitality might prepare and distribute food, or work in hotels maintained for medical providers. Communications majors might draw up, produce, and disseminate public-information campaigns. Students unsure of their interests might fill entry-level roles in underserved sectors, from logistics to agriculture to construction.

Spending a year of their life in such service projects is not what most college students would normally have chosen, but this is not a normal year. Students are willing to help; in a survey conducted this month, the Panetta Institute for Public Policy found that three out of five current college students had a desire to perform public service in exchange for help with tuition. Now could be their chance. What better way for students to deal with the trauma of this horrifying pandemic than for them to see themselves not as a problem to be solved, but as a vital part of the solution.

College campuses are petri dishes. The dorms, the dining halls, the libraries, the labs, the gyms all incubators of infection. So administrators at the nation’s colleges and universities will have a difficult time ensuring safety if the virus does not abate by summer’s end. Some institutions insist that they will reopen anyway. A few, such as the California State University system, have announced that they will not hold in-person classes next fall. Many more have instructed faculty to reimagine courses for a hybrid audience—with students unable or unwilling to attend class being offered courses either partially or fully online. I used Zoom to teach last semester, and it worked fine in a pinch. But Zoom and similar platforms are no substitute for the college experience, whose value lies in students’ serendipitous mingling with faculty, staff, and one another.

As an educator, I’ve heard various responses from families to these options, ranging from fear to approval to utter confusion. Most parents are reluctant to expose their kids to any level of risk, but also reluctant to pay full tuition for online classes. Yet every parent I speak with seems resigned to settle for whatever option they can afford. As one mother told me, “There are no jobs, no internships. What the hell else is [my daughter] going to do?”

So why do so many university administrators insist on opening their doors next fall? One obvious answer is money. In recent years, rising tuition and fear of accruing debt have led to a decline in student numbers. Approximately 250,000 fewer college students enrolled in 2019 than in 2018. Administrators fear that a semester without tuition will accelerate this downward trend, and push many vulnerable colleges over the edge. That fear is justified: A recent survey concluded that roughly one-third of private, four-year American colleges are at risk of sinking within the year.

What is puzzling is that much of the rhetoric rationalizing the reopening of colleges emphasizes not these very real financial concerns, but the supposed duty of the academy to serve students and their needs with traditional coursework, often in a residential setting. Surely that duty ended with the pandemic, replaced by a duty to keep students, faculty, staff, and their families safe from the worst pandemic in living memory—and, perhaps, to prepare students for a year-long tour of duty in national service matched to their skills and interests.

Just last month, a group of lawmakers proposed the Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act, which would offer major increases in funding for AmeriCorps and other service-related initiatives.

AmeriCorps typically offers 75,000 volunteers up to $6,195 toward student loans or a degree, a relative pittance that many colleges and universities voluntarily match, or even exceed. The new legislation proposes growing the number of service opportunities to 750,000 and more than tripling the education award, to $20,880, roughly twice the national average of in-state tuition and fees at public universities. This and other costs would require an estimated additional investment of $7 billion a year. “That’s not even a rounding error in the $4 trillion of new federal spending,” says Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, one of nine Democrats who introduced the bill, which has received bipartisan support. And costs would shrink significantly if student volunteers were encouraged to remain in their family home, thereby reducing the need for a cost-of-living stipend.

Coons told me that AmeriCorps could be “retooled for the pandemic” to allow students to front-load some part of their educational award to cover current tuition at participating colleges and universities. He likened this idea to another major federal intervention in higher education: the law that offers tuition to those who serve in the military. “The GI Bill was one of the most popular pieces of legislation in the nation’s history,” he said. “I’ve never met an American who even questioned it. This would be something similar, but for national service.”

Many colleges and universities encourage undergraduates to take internships, often for academic credit. In a CoronaCorps scenario, they would receive credit for their service, as well as for the one or two courses they take online each semester. In exchange, colleges and universities would collect tuition, though at a discounted rate to account for the lack of on-campus support and activities, as well as the lightened course load. All parties involved would need to adjust their expectations—financial and otherwise—but that is what a global crisis requires.

Any initiative that scales up rapidly in weeks or months will be improvised to some degree. Still, two decades of experience with AmeriCorps provides a useful foundation for a much larger emergency initiative; a spokesperson for AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, a sister entity that deploys retirees, noted that the programs are currently performing service in 45,000 locations around the country. The task of scaling up the program for a significant fraction of the nation’s college students is daunting, but it’s clearly less dangerous than all these students returning to campus. And it’s likely more realistic than the elaborate systems of weekly testing, isolation, and regular student, faculty, and staff quarantines that some schools are now contriving.

A CoronaCorps year would help keep universities and colleges afloat and students engaged through a difficult period. It would afford young people the all-too-rare opportunity to act independently and with a clear sense of purpose. It would open their minds, expand their views, and teach them to grapple with complexity in an uncertain world. And crucially, it would give them the chance to perform service whose primary purpose is not to enrich their résumé, but to enrich others’ lives—and their own.