"Patriot Corps would be a new national service program that links service and schooling. As part of a plan for economic democracy, as we shall see, the United States should offer up to four years of free public education after high school for anyone who wishes to attend. Patriot Corps would provide an additional benefit: members of Patriot Corps would get up to four years of education or training at a public or private college, university, or community college debt-free — tuition, fees, room and board, and books — through a combination of a Patriot Corps scholarship and need-based aid from the college. In return, they would serve the country for four years. Any person of any age would be eligible to participate, including retirees interested in a second (or third) career.
"The model is the military, which covers students during the college years in return for military service. Patriot Corps would be similar, but members would serve in a variety of nonmilitary capacities: addressing the impacts of climate change as part of the Green New Deal; working for states or nonprofit organizations; installing new infrastructure from bridges to broadband; modernizing government services through the application of new technologies; serving as teachers, childcare providers, and home health care workers, and more. They would emerge from Patriot Corps with an education and real work experience.
"The benefits to the country would be significant. Patriot Corps members would help address some of the country's biggest challenges, keeping the United States on the frontiers of the world. The country would not only guarantee that millions of Americans, young and old, get further education and training, but it would also help address the student debt crisis for new students. Currently, students have $1.5 trillion in outstanding debt. Not only does this massive debt burden weigh on students psychologically and financially, it harms the economy. A generation of debtors is a generation that can't put a down payment on a new house or start a small business. Finally, and most importantly, Patriot Corps would build an ethic of service and help create a more united democracy. Members would not only serve others but would also be part of a diverse community. As with the military, most members would be assigned to a different region of the country, where they would interact with different people and see the diversity of America in all its forms. Patriot Corps would also make private colleges accessible to those who otherwise could not afford them, helping to bring a more regionally, economically, and racially diverse student body to those institutions. The overall result would be to make Americans less isolated from each other.
"Patriot Corps would also merge all of the existing service programs — the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, VISTA — under one single banner. This would help with recruiting and give the program a brand that everyone would recognize. The program would not be mandatory, but the benefit of a debt-free education at a private institution would be significant. Although the very wealthiest kids might opt out of Patriot Corps, over time, norms would change. As more and more people participated, eventually there would be an expectation of participation. The question, 'Where did you serve?' might even become an icebreaker that wouldn't just apply to members of the military.
"Patriot Corps isn't a pie-in-the-sky idea. During the New Deal, Americans across the country were mobilized by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, the National Youth Administration, and other alphabet-soup agencies. These agencies built public works, brought mobile libraries to rural areas, and made national parks usable. And after World War II, the GI Bill helped 2.2 million veterans become scientists, business people, engineers, and artists, sending a generation to college. For every dollar spent on the program, the country gained five dollars in productivity and taxes. But more importantly, these programs engaged Americans as members of their country, of our national community. They helped stitch us together as one people, aiming for a more perfect union."