New Service Act Great Opportunity for Talbot County’s Youth5/22/23
Governor Wes Moore recently signed into law the SERVE (Serving Every Region Through Vocational Exploration) Act, creating a program that will allow recent high school graduates to participate in a year of paid service before continuing their education, joining the military, or going to work. This is good news for Talbot County students and parents.
Talbot County youth are eligible for the service program up to three years after earning a high school diploma or its equivalent. They will earn a $15 hourly wage and a $6,000 stipend if they work at least 30 hours per week, participate in all training, partner with an onsite mentor, perform satisfactorily, and complete at least nine months of service in a public, non-profit, or private sector organization. Participating employers will share in the costs of the program.
Governor Moore made this program a top priority for his administration because he believes giving “our young people a chance to make the state better” and do “something that makes their heart beat a little faster” will make them more productive citizens. A high school graduate might choose to spend the year contributing to conservation efforts, health care services, or literacy programs—to name just a few options—in their own town or in a different Maryland community. Governor Moore believes these experiences “can bring people together in these divisive times and increase civic engagement and participation.” A more informed and engaged citizenry will certainly strengthen our state. But there are many more reasons to celebrate this program.
First, as parents of teens know firsthand and neuroscience confirms, seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds struggle to make long-term decisions. Research shows that the brain continues developing through the mid-to-late 20s, and that the area of the brain responsible for reasoning, planning, judgment, and impulse control is among the last to mature. It makes sense, then, to defer important life decisions like whether and where to pursue higher education until these skills are honed by a little experience in “the real world.” This is particularly true for the next few graduating classes, whose mental health and development were adversely affected by all the pandemic-associated disruptions to their education.
Second, an alternative path for high school students that allows them to earn money before college will also make higher education more affordable and reduce the scourge of student debt. In addition to the benefits of mentorship and work experience, the opportunity to save money for a year will expand access to college for those who want to go and leave them better prepared.
Third, giving students a meaningful employment option after graduation will also improve students’ high school experiences. As the parent of four children who attended college right after high school, I remember how the singular focus on “what comes next” distorted their junior and senior years. They were either focused on getting into college or experiencing the relief of that acceptance email—both of which made them less likely to focus on their high school courses and experiences. Making a “gap year” a more widely accepted and accessible option would go a long way toward changing that school culture.
The program is slated to start with only 200 participants for all of Maryland’s 6000 high school graduates this year. That will make the chances of getting into the program somewhat limited this year for Talbot County’s 350 graduating high school seniors. But the plan is to grow it each year, ramping up to 2000 participants in the fourth year, aiming to meet Governor Moore’s goal of providing this opportunity for every student who wants it. I can see plenty of reasons to want it, and I expect, in the years to come, the success of the program will speak for itself.
Jane C. Murphy is a member of the Talbot County Democratic Forum, a Laurence M. Katz Professor Emerita at the University of Baltimore School of Law and resident of Oxford.