Diversity and Democracy

Mandating Service: Mexico's National Requirement

Many institutions of higher education share a common mission and purpose: to contribute to the public good by educating socially responsible citizens (Hartley and Hollander 2005). In Mexico, where 52 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line, the higher education system plays a key role in promoting change by educating professionals who can improve economic and social conditions (Consejo Nacional de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social 2012). Mexico is one of the few countries that have a mandatory service component for students enrolled in higher education. This requirement benefits marginalized sectors of society while raising students’ awareness and deepening their sense of social responsibility (Asociación Nacional de Universidades e Instituciones de Educación Superior 2010).

The Requirement and Its Governance

Mexico’s mandatory service requirement was established in the national constitution in 1910. The roots of the requirement extend back to Aztec civilization, where members of the Calpulli, which functioned as early farming collectives, were obliged to work for the community in exchange for use of the land (Mungaray and Ocegueda 1999).

National rules and bylaws govern the mandatory service requirement. Service should align with students’ majors, and students must complete 75 percent of their academic credits before beginning their service. Most students are required to engage in 480 hours of work in a period of six to twelve months, with students majoring in health science required to perform one thousand hours of service. According to Mexico’s Ministry of Public Education, approximately 780,000 higher education students complete more than 374.4 million hours of service every year (Dirección General de Planeación y Programación Secretaria de Educación Pública 2012).

Mexico’s National Association of Higher Education Institutions (ANUIES) and its Higher Education Commission for Social Service (CISS) help manage the service component, but each university defines its own norms and processes for compliance. This means that each institution determines for itself the characteristics required of programs where students complete their hours. For example, public higher education institutions such as the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon (UANL) encourage students to engage in service opportunities at public organizations and in accordance with their academic major and profile (Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon 2010).

Institutional Examples

At the Universidad de Monterrey (UDEM)—a private, faith-based university—service is seen as a means of transcendence. It is embedded in the institution’s mission as a resource for helping students find purpose in life. UDEM defines community service as an activity that students perform for society, primarily to benefit social groups and organizations that need assistance. At UDEM, the goals of community service are to enhance students’ sense of social responsibility and awareness of community needs, and to engage students in collaborative projects that produce change (Universidad de Monterrey 2005).

To achieve these goals, UDEM operates several social programs, both independently and in collaboration with local and national organizations. These include education, health service, and extension programs where volunteers teach leaders of low-income communities (at UDEM’s Universidad de Barrios) and academic courses where university students teach material from their majors to high school students from impoverished communities (at UDEM’s Preparatoria Politecnica). These and other programs are designed to educate students in three conceptions of citizenship: personally responsible citizenship, proactive and participatory citizenship, and justice-oriented citizenship (Westheimer and Kahne 2004). Every year, approximately 1,200 UDEM students provide over five hundred thousand hours of service in 120 programs. Students also fulfill the service requirement through service learning in their academic courses. More than forty faculty and project leaders trained by the Latin American Center for Service Learning (CLAYSS) use service learning to address problems in different municipalities.

The Tecnologico de Monterrey, a private institution that educates students to become responsible citizens who initiate development in their communities, has established a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) to strengthen the ethical commitments and citizenship competencies that will constitute hallmarks of students’ professional lives. The QEP names two main citizenship competencies: knowing about and being sensitive toward improving social, economic, and political realities; and acting with civic spirit and responsibility to improve the quality of life in communities, especially those that are underprivileged.

The national service requirement plays a fundamental role in the development of these competencies and is a primary component of the QEP. Across the more than four hundred institutions that are part of the Tecnologico de Monterrey’s outreach programs, students complete more than 3.5 million hours of service every year, working in areas such as community development, K–12 support programs, online high school programs, microbusinesses, and programs for people with disabilities. The institution develops extensive training and certification programs for faculty and staff focused on improving students’ citizenship competencies (Tecnológico de Monterrey Dirección de Desarrollo Social 2013).

Benefits and Challenges

Students of Mexican higher education report multiple benefits from engaging in service. These include a sense of self-realization and personal satisfaction, improved leadership skills, personal growth and development, greater appreciation for their families and for their own personal gifts, increased social capital as they join the workforce, and fuller aspirations for their personal and professional futures (Cantón 2011).

But these benefits are balanced by numerous challenges. Because service is mandatory, students tend to perceive it as a tedious requirement and sometimes underestimate the potential impact of engaging in their communities. Factors that limit student participation include misconceptions about and unawareness of the component’s purposes and its benefits, not only for the student body, but also for faculty and community partners. University bureaucracy that constrains students’ engagement and competing priorities for students’ time and attention are also barriers to participation (Cantón 2011).

Bettering Society

Mexico’s mandatory community service component is an effective mechanism for engaging undergraduate students in civic work that benefits society. With only 13 percent of the Mexican population ages 25 to 65 holding an associate’s degree or higher, undergraduate students in Mexico are a privileged group (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education 2008). The mandatory service requirement assists universities in their efforts to educate citizens who can use their privilege to better Mexican society.


Asociación Nacional de Universidades e Instituciones de Educación Superior. 2010. El Servicio Social de la Educación Superior: Punto de Articulación con el Entorno. México, DF: ANUIES.

Cantón, Alicia. 2011. “How Institutional Contexts Influence the Civic Development of Students at Three Mexican Universities.” EdD diss., University of Pennsylvania.

Consejo Nacional de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social. 2012. “Informe de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social en México 2012.” México, DF: Consejo Nacional de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social.

Dirección General de Planeación y Programación Secretaria de Educación Pública. 2012. “Sistema Educativo de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos, Principales Cifras 2011–2012.” Mexico, DF: Secretaría de Educación Pública.

Hartley, Matthew, and Elizabeth L. Hollander. 2005. “The Elusive Ideal: Civic Learning and Higher Education.” In Institutions of Democracy: The Public Schools, edited by Susan Fuhrman and Marvin Lazerson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mungaray, Alejandro, and Juan Manuel Ocegueda. 1999. El Servicio Social y la Educación Superior frente a la Pobreza Extrema en México. México, DF: ANUIES.

National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. 2008. “Measuring Up 2008: The National Report Card on Higher Education.” San José, CA: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Tecnológico de Monterrey Dirección de Desarrollo Social, Departamento de Servicio Social. 2013. “Reporte Anual del Servicio Social 2012.” Monterrey, NL: Tecnológico de Monterrey.

Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon. 2010. “Premio a la Excelencia en el Cumplimiento del Servicio Social.” http://web.uanl.mx/vinculacion/eventos/convocatoria.html.

Universidad de Monterrey. 2005. “Reglamento del Servicio Social del nivel de Profesional.” Monterrey, NL: Universidad de Monterrey.

Westheimer, Joel, and Joseph Kahne. 2004. “What Kind of Citizen? The Politics of Educating for Democracy.” American Educational Research Journal 41 (2): 237–69.

Alicia Cantón is dean of student affairs at the Universidad de Monterrey. Enrique Ramos is national student affairs director at the Tecnológico de Monterrey.

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