Don’t mandate volunteering

Amil Malik

The Texas Legislature is an idiosyncratic establishment from which impractical bills often arise. Consider House Bill 22. 

HB 22 proposes “the establishment of a public service requirement for undergraduate students, known as Service to Texas, at public institutions of higher education.” 

Any student enrolled in an undergraduate program that requires at least 60 hours would have to do 20 hours of community service to graduate. This service would have to be approved by an office in the University that coordinates and monitors the service program and provides students with a list of approved organizations in which they may serve. 

While the bill sounds good in theory, it’s unrealistic considering the state’s education finances. Requiring an office to coordinate community service hours for 50,000 or more students at UT alone would put a huge economic burden on the University. But, instead of discussing the impracticality of the suggestion, I’d like to focus on the principle of mandating community service. 

Does mandatory community service benefit the community, or does it take away from the point of volunteerism? Isn’t the purpose of volunteering to take part in something freely? And, more broadly, what exactly is community service? 

As for benefitting the community, there results are inconclusive as to whether mandatory service programs increase the likelihood of graduates continuing service involvement on their own. According to a study in the American Education Research Journal, both mandatory and voluntary community service in high school were strong predictors of adult volunteering. But other studies indicate that the results are inconclusive, especially at a college level. An article in the January 2000 issue of School Administrator, a monthly magazine published by American Association of School Administrators, concludes that mandatory community service programs can go both ways; such programs’ success depends on the quality with which they are implemented. 

There are plenty of organizations on UT campus that distinguish themselves through their members’ community involvement. Activities such organizations sponsor include hands-on volunteering in homeless shelters, food pantries, women’s shelters, retirement homes and children’s museums. Other volunteer efforts by campus organizations involve less personal investment on members’ parts — for example, when campus organizations run blood drives, student involvement is generally limited to soliciting blood donations. Is it fair to ask, as HB 22 would, school administrators to decide if such contributions to service projects all weigh equally? 

Perhaps what we already have at UT is the best solution. Students who want to engage in community service can do so, without having to worry whether their actions will be approved by the Legislature or any bureaucracy it would establish with HB 22. And, since I may not see standing outside a blood donation truck as the best use of my time, I can do instead what I am passionate about — tutoring at-risk kids, running clothing donation drives, helping the homeless — without having someone else judge whether what I am doing benefits constitutes “public service.” 

The value of volunteering arises from its intention. If you intend to work to make a difference and help someone, then most things can be considered “service.” But if you make volunteering obligatory, something students are forced to do, its impact — both personal and otherwise — could be diminished. And though school boards and authorities can mandate an action, no one can mandate an intention. 

Malik is a Plan II and business honors program freshman from Austin.