While the pandemic upends higher education and the job force, service programs offer productive gap-year options that can grow skills and advance the common good.

Service Program Opportunities for College Students and Grads


  • The pandemic sent some volunteers home, but many continue to serve.
  • Service programs connect college grads and students with communities and careers.
  • Participants can defer student loans while acquiring valuable skills.

This could be the perfect year to volunteer. In the midst of a global health crisis, and while extreme weather batters poor communities, need is greater than ever. College students and graduates can make big impacts on local and global communities by volunteering with a service program.

Service programs like AmeriCorps and City Year connect young people with paid positions where they can work for the greater good. Program volunteers partner with communities to mentor and tutor kids, rebuild after disasters, and clean up natural areas.

This year, service programs are seeing a surge in student interest. Surveys show that more students are weighing their options over the summer and considering a gap year. Rather than attend college online or try to find a job, students can pursue a third option. Service work can make taking time off — before, during, or after college — worthwhile.

What Are Service Programs?

Service programs, also known as civil society programs, provide opportunities to work for the public good across the country and around the globe. Volunteers can apply for a wide variety of roles in many locations. Some service programs last a few months, while others last a year or more.

This network of national service programs has around 75,000 participants each year. Volunteers serve from three months to a year, joining forces with a cohort and a community organization to fight the effects of poverty, help veterans and low-income communities, build affordable housing, mentor and tutor kids, sustain national parks, clean up natural environments, and rebuild after disasters.

Volunteers join one of three branches:

  • AmeriCorps State and National
  • AmeriCorps NCCC
  • AmeriCorps VISTA

An agency for senior citizen aid, Senior Corps combines three programs: the Foster Grandparent Program, the Senior Companion Program, and the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program. Community chapters connect young people to elderly Americans in need. Senior citizen volunteers can also find mentorship opportunities and contribute their skills.

An education nonprofit that puts volunteers in inner-city classrooms to tutor, mentor, and student-teach, City Year allows young people to experience a year of full-time community service in cities in the U.S., the U.K., and South Africa. Founded in 1988, City Year is now a partner of AmeriCorps.

Founded by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, the Peace Corps provides social and economic assistance to needy areas in the world. Volunteers with governments, schools, and NGOs work to build infrastructure and provide education. The Peace Corps has three founding goals:

  1. Providing trained manpower.
  2. Promoting understanding of Americans among people in developing countries.
  3. Promoting understanding among Americans of people in developing countries.

Students should note that the Peace Corps has suspended its operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

How Service Gap Years Impact Careers

The reverberating effects of COVID-19 on schools, students, employers, and employees have made it harder to stick to education and career plans. Taking a service gap year offers college students and college grads a unique opportunity to build skills and contribute to the world while waiting for the economy to settle.

  • Develop Skills and a Professional Network

    Service program alumni say that their programs helped them establish peer-to-peer and professional connections, and many used the experience to find a full-time job. While a gap year can seem like a detour, participants often find the experience functions as a pipeline to their future career.

    Many volunteers directly use their experience with nonprofits and project development to secure a job in the public sector. Private sector employers are also impressed with service work. It typically reads as professional experience on a resume.

  • Reenergize Your Return to School

    According to the National Gap Year Association, students who participate in a gap year graduate sooner and with higher GPAs compared to the national average. Even after taking a year off, many "gappers" make it to graduation ahead of their peers.

    The meaningful experiences gathered over the course of a service term help students return to school with a renewed mindset. Many service members go on to apply for graduate school, while others sign up for another year of service.

  • Take Advantage of Student Loan Relief

    Service program participants are paid small stipends that vary based on their role and the local cost of living. Taking a service gap year is by no means lucrative, but there are some financial benefits for college students.

    For example, members may defer student loan payments while they serve. Additionally, individuals who complete approved terms of service with CNCS qualify for the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award. This award can be used to help pay for college, graduate school, or vocational training, or to repay student loans.

  • Gap Years May Reduce Lifetime Earnings

    Service gap years can lead to many personal and professional benefits, but taking one can cut into your lifetime earnings. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York found "sizable hidden costs to delaying college," even in the current economic environment.

    Although some gappers graduate faster than their peers, taking a year off still means delaying graduation and giving up potential wages that could have been earned as a professional. Starting your career later could also mean staying a step behind for promotions and raises. According to economists, these year-to-year wage differences can add up to tens of thousands of dollars in lost lifetime earnings.

    Additionally, depending on your view of online education, the value of going to college may have actually increased this year. Some schools are offering tuition discounts due to COVID-19, which could reduce costs for certain students. And high unemployment rates put the opportunity cost of going to college — the wages you would be making if you weren't busy being a student — closer to zero.

    Taking a service gap year may reduce your projected lifetime earnings, but a successful career isn't based on income alone. Gappers, who are more likely to work in the public sector, report high levels of job satisfaction — something that's not correlated with income.

How Service Programs Are Responding to the Pandemic

Service programs' many agencies and volunteer posts have responded to the coronavirus pandemic in different ways. While most international volunteers have been called home, many stateside volunteers continue to work.

The Peace Corps suspended its global operations in March, evacuating its more than 7,000 volunteers worldwide. Some of those Peace Corps volunteers have begun to serve through AmeriCorps instead. According to AmeriCorps, the majority of the country's 75,000 AmeriCorps members have maintained or adapted their posts.

Some politicians and educators have called for increased funding for federal teaching and civil service programs for young people.

Whether or not CNCS volunteers have been able to fulfill their contract, the $2.2 trillion emergency relief bill passed in March provided stipends for service program participants. The bill allowed grant recipients to receive grant money and graduating service members to earn education awards, even if the pandemic prevented them from completing their service terms.

In addition to supporting current volunteers, some politicians and educators have called for increased funding for federal teaching and civil service programs for young people. As part of ongoing COVID-19 response efforts, CNCS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourage partnerships between health departments and national service programs.

Service Program Opportunities During COVID-19

Researchers have observed that when jobs are harder to find, applications to service programs tend to increase. Now, jobs are hard to find. And the need for volunteers is great.

Many AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and City Year programs continue to accept applications and address critical community needs. All three programs serve under-resourced communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and resultant lockdowns.

The health crisis requires large temporary workforces to respond to emerging needs, such as administering the contact-tracing programs that are being considered in some states. The pandemic has shifted some positions online, and many service programs continue to carry out their mission in new ways.

International opportunities, however, are on hold. The Peace Corps says it is "eager for Volunteers to return to service," but that posts will stay empty until health and safety can be assured. For now, the Peace Corps is accepting applications for future opportunities.

Start Serving Now

COVID-19 forced many students to reconsider their education and career plans. If you're thinking about taking a gap year as an undergraduate, make sure that your college permits students to return after time off. Many schools allow first-year students to defer admission, but some force students to reapply.

While the Peace Corps is on hold until at least 2021, AmeriCorps has active listings for volunteer opportunities, as does the Gap Year Association, VolunteerMatch, Idealist, and All for Good. Additionally, the Service Year Alliance has new job availabilities in pandemic response. You can also explore service opportunities in your state.

The upcoming election requires poll workers, Habitat for Humanity continues to build homes, and Meals on Wheels needs volunteers to help feed the hungry.

Serving your community doesn't have to be a yearlong commitment. There are many opportunities for college students and grads to volunteer now. For example, the upcoming election requires poll workers, Habitat for Humanity continues to build homes, and Meals on Wheels needs volunteers to help feed the hungry.

Finally, perhaps the most impactful volunteerism a college student can offer at this time is tutoring K-12 students. Educators say that tutoring programs are key to battling the "COVID slide." While the pandemic upends education plans, college students can develop professional skills and help the next cohort.


Feature Image: Ariel Skelley / Digital Vision / Getty Images