Motives for student public service don’t matter

So what do average college students do when they aren’t studying or attending class? Getting a part-time or full-time job to help pay the bills has always been popular, and there will never be an end to parties, road trips and “hanging out.”

But the new rage, surprisingly enough, is volunteering.

According to a study being released today by the Corporation for National and Community Service, 20 percent more college students volunteered from 2002 to 2005. The increase reflects an increase of 600,000 more college students spending their limited extra time helping the community.

In sum, nearly one-third – 30 percent – of college students volunteered doing some kind of service from 2002 to 2005. Between Americorps, tutoring, mentoring, rebuilding the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina and volunteering for religious organizations, interest in public service by college students has been on the rise since Sept. 11.

In fact, the increase in volunteer work by today’s college students is so strong that it mirrors that of “the greatest generation” – the generation that grew up during and around World War II, when the country was in similar trouble.

They’re even creating new awards to show appreciation for the work. Elon University in North Carolina will be one of three universities to receive the first President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll award Tuesday.

The growth rate for volunteerism among college students was more than twice that of any other group. Episodic volunteering, such as giving up spring break to volunteer for two weeks, increased by more than 200,000 students. Interest in Americorps among college freshman is the highest it has been in a quarter-century.

There are two ways to interpret this increase in volunteering, and it’s probable that both interpretations will be cited in discussions in the coming weeks.

The first is optimistic: College students are socially conscious, and they care about their community. The other is a bit more self-interested: College students know employers and admissions departments are impressed by extracurricular activities, and they are helping when they have time in order to pad their resumes.

Frankly, regardless of whether it’s for self-interest, what matters is that it’s happening. Ask a victim of Hurricane Katrina whether it matters to them why that volunteer gave them that water bottle. Ask a desperate freshman if he cares why that senior helped him study for his math test. The why of the matter doesn’t matter a bit – the fact that it’s happening at all is good enough.