James Montavon's Shortform

by James Montavon24th Jan 20213 comments
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National Year of Service for Free College as an EA Idea

This is mostly anecdotal and n of 1; interested to hear the community's thoughts. 

  1. During high school, I went on mission trips through my church. One I credit with starting me thinking about EA type trade offs and values- we went to Guatemala, and spent the first week working with La Casa del Alfarero working with the absolute poorest of the poor, people living and working inside of the Guatemala City garbage dump. This organization did real research into what interventions they could do to most help these people, and we did things like build stoves with chimneys so that they wouldn't inhale plastic fumes in their house and gave kids free healthy meals if they came to school. They also explicitly taught us that they took time out of their more effective work to babysit us rich white kids because some of us would be moved to donate and that would pay off in the end, and that what they really needed was more funding to hire local poor people who were better at these tasks anyways and then we would be helping someone with a job, too. The next week we spent with a missionary named Bob who lived in a beautiful villa overlooking a rainforest canyon and had really good food and people come play classical Spanish guitar and we also occasionally went to an orphanage and sang some songs and took lots of pictures.  The contrast was so stark that it affected all of us, and we did not return to Bob's in future years.
  2. Currently, I am about to graduate from my undergrad degree and will enter graduate school for my MPH in Epidemiology in the fall. I am on the GI bill, and the VA is also paying for my grad school. This funding of my college means a) I can plan to work in a lower paying but more effective field like public health because I don't have to worry about college debt and b) I have been able to take exactly the research positions and jobs that I want to help build career capital and test out certain jobs because I don't need the money .
  3. What are the community's thoughts on ideas for free college contingent on a national year of service? I have heard it floated by politicians every now and then, and think it might actually be a really good policy from an EA perspective if it gets people exposed to the world of the global poor and also allows them to pursue higher education without worrying about loans. Recency bias towards their service experience and the tendency towards idealism in young people make me think that a relatively large number of young Americans could go on to study and work in altruistic careers, which is generally good, and some percentage of them would probably be influenced by EA ideas, which is even better. Another point in favor of NYoS plans is that they are potentially more politically feasible than just free college due to people's aversions to "handouts"

Point (1) was a well-told story! Very interesting to read.

This kind of idea seems like it could be net-positive, but any major national policy change with no strong advocates (there are others who want this, but I haven't seen any show up in the news for years) isn't likely to be the kind of project an EA-aligned organization could pursue; our community is too tiny to even register as an "interest group".

...if it gets people exposed to the world of the global poor...

I've always seen advocates for other forms of this plan discuss service within one's country. If this is taxpayer-funded, it seems really unlikely that many (if any) people would be allowed to serve abroad. Even if this were permitted, it would be a much more expensive option than serving in one's own city, and I can't picture many people choosing it.