How the Media get National Service Wrong (Sometimes)

As news media pick up stories about graduating students missing out on high-power corporate jobs and falling back on national service, some details are skewed.

Here is my rebuttal to some stories I’ve seen in the media lately about national service as a solution to college student angst about employment and loan repayment. Like this one from the Wall Street Journal, and this one from MSN Money.

A term of national service is not the same as nonprofit employment. And there’s a lot more to public service than a year of stipended national service. It’s misleading to say that when the Class of 2009 is locked out of entry level positions at huge corporations, they may opt for “nonprofit work” by joining AmeriCorps for $10,000 a year.

What’s wrong with that kind of reporting?

1. Recent coverage is perpetuating the false idea that only people rejected from business careers look into national service and nonprofit work.

Service is not the job you can get when no one else will hire you. Competition is high for national service slots. Far more people apply to most service corps than there are openings. For example, Teach For America saw 25,000 applications last year, but only needed a fraction of that to fill all its corps member openings. Chicago’s Inner City Teaching Corps has gotten five times the number of applicants than it’s had openings.

Service organizations are looking for people committed to social justice, who actually have volunteer, leadership, and issue-focused experience. People for whom a term of service is a plausible commitment, and who have something to offer communities.

And in fact, you can actually graduate from college aspiring to a national service experience or nonprofit career — because you are committed to social change, community issues, living your faith, etc. That is, if people who are mentoring you can educate you about these kinds of opportunities.

Mid-career professionals who’ve dedicated their lives to earning their companies a profit are often surprised to find how tricky it is to break into the nonprofit sector. While business skills are valuable in running nonprofit organizations, and many nonprofit careerists earn MBAs, the nonprofit sector is not the repository of people who didn’t make it as capitalists.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being a capitalist.

2. A term of national service is not an alternate career path or a nonprofit job.

A term of service is usually a year or two — it’s not exactly an alternative career path. It’s short term. After your term you can decide what to do next — you’ll have more experience than you did as a college senior, but your options in life are still as wide open.

While most U.S.-based service programs are 501(c)(3) nonprofits themselves, corps members are supported by a range of host sites, not just nonprofits. Corps members teach in public schools and serve in local government agencies, as well as in nonprofit organizations.

Nonprofit careers do exist — and national service is a great launching point. To understand nonprofit careers better, check out the Guide to Nonprofit Careers.

3. Finally, one of the biggest misunderstandings people—including reporters—have is that nonprofit = no money. That nonprofit work is volunteer work and doesn’t count as a “real job” that can support a person or family.

At we have had to work hard, and will continue to work hard, to get people — college students, career counselors, parents, mid-career professionals — to let go of certain notions they have of nonprofit employment.

Saying that college grads will settle for a $10,000/year “job” in the nonprofit sector because of the loan repayment benefit implies that nonprofits pay poverty wages to staff. That’s a serious issue for the nonprofit sector wanting to beef up its workforce and leadership pipeline (PDF) in time for baby boomers to retire. And it’s irresponsible journalism.

From the document debunking the top-ten myths about the nonprofit sector:

The term “nonprofit” refers to the 501(c) tax code in the United States. Non-governmental organization, or NGO, and “charity” are the common terms used outside the United States. Revenues generated by nonprofit organizations go back into programs that serve the organizations’ mission. There are no stockholders receiving annual financial dividends, and employees do not receive a bonus at the end of a good year. According to Independent Sector, $670 billion are earned by nonprofit organizations annually, and one in twelve Americans work in the nonprofit sector.

To learn more about the nonprofit sector, read Chapter One of the Guide to Nonprofit Careers. To learn more about nonprofit salaries, check out these free, online resources: Occupational Outlook Handbook,, and (use the term “non-profit,” with a hyphen).

To learn more about service opportunities, check out the Corps and Coalitions list on the right-hand sidebar of this blog.

David Eisner’s recent speech about the need for national service explains its value from the perspective of governing healthy communities during an economic downturn.

NYC Teaching Fellows

New teachers primarily work in Bronx and Brooklyn schools with high demand for faculty, covering subjects that are also desperately needed. Within two to three years, Fellows earn a subsidized Masters degree from university in the area.

NYC Teaching Fellows — as with Teach For America, Inner-City Teaching Corps, Mississippi Teacher Corps, and other education corps we are looking at this week — is designed to bring new talent to schools.


People who enter the program don’t need to have had any formal background in education, but do need to have a 3.0 Grade Point Average in undergraduate course work. Read about other eligibility requirements.

The program recruits both recent college grads as well as career changers.

Training and “placement”

After an intense June seven-week pre-service training, Fellows start teaching. The program assigns each Fellow the New York City borough in which they will teach, and their subject. (Of particular need are math and science teachers.)

Fellows research and apply for the teaching positions themselves, and are granted a provisional state teaching license for their time in the program.

While teaching, Fellows earn the salary and benefits of starting teachers in the city (salary nears $46,000).

Master’s degree

Each semester, Fellows take two courses towards their master’s degree, mostly paid for by the New York City Department of Education. (Over the course of the program, Fellows contribute almost $7,000 towards the cost of the mastser’s degree, and that is deducted from their pay checks.)

The specific universities and degrees vary for each Fellow, depending on the borough where they work, and the subject they teach. More than half attend City University of New York (CUNY) schools. For most Fellows, it takes two to three years to finish the degree. After that, NYC Teaching Fellows encourages graduating Fellows to stay in the city and continue teaching. They cite a statistic I’ve seen elsewhere that it takes about five years for a new teacher to really hit their stride, and they want all their Fellows to reach that point.


Browse profiles and videos of Fellows, including Travis Brown’s. Read the blog of Bill King, third-year Fellow teaching biology and physics.

Also, watch interviews with first-year Fellow Kristen Bloomer and take a look inside Fellow Jeanine Tubiolo’s classroom:

Finally, watch this online presentation about the NYC Teaching Fellows.

Deadlines and application

Upcoming deadlines to apply for a 2009 Fellowship are December 5 and January 5. Read more about the application process.


For more resources on graduate education, check out the Public Service Graduate Education Resource Center, and if you live in the U.S. South, come out to one of our graduate admissions fairs touring — tonight in New Orleans and Monday in Atlanta.

This week The New Service blog is looking at education service corps. While many service corps programs have application due dates in the spring for a fall start date, most education service corps have deadlines throughout the winter and start in the summer. Check out this list of education-related opprotunities that don’t require an education degree.

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