May 12, 2009

AmeriCorps: Fixing Student Loans Should be Part of the Expansion

Civil service should come with loan deferment.

We’ve posted before about the Serve America Act (which, among other things, will open up AmeriCorps from 75,000 slots to 250,000 slots nationwide), and the potential for improvements to AmeriCorps for the purposes of fostering civil service in our country. Block grants, as I wrote before, would be a smart step to make sure the funding goes to programs that can put it to best use.

But service still isn’t a viable option for many young Americans – and that needs to change in order to develop a culture of broad civic volunteerism.

One of the most crucial would be to change federal guidelines on student loans. AmeriCorps members are typically just out of college and have racked up a great deal of student loans. Federal Stafford loans can, after a very complicated process, be deferred while a person is in AmeriCorps. Many private loans cannot. Considering that AmeriCorps members live on about $800 a month and have to pay for their own housing, debt can quickly become a problem. Moreover, many students from lower income households are unable to participate in AmeriCorps because the financial investment is so prohibitive.

The deferred Federal Stafford loans can be handled with more consideration as well. Most people leave AmeriCorps having saved no money (for the obvious reason that they’re paid so little). Their first payment on their student loans often comes due right as they’re leaving, when they are looking for a job. As a result, service often poses the wrong kind of sacrifice to volunteers: putting them at risk of insolvency.

If Congress is serious about getting more people involved in community service, one way to show it would be to work with private lenders to allow private loans to be deferred. Streamlining and extending the deferment process for Federal Stafford loans would be another big step forward. This is a way to ease volunteers’ transition back into the job market, and it will inevitably mean more people are able to take advantage of the opportunity to greater positive effect. And as opposed to the expenditures of the Serve America Act, these suggestions would cost little to nothing.

1 comment:

Beth Brantley said...

Being from Alabama and growing up as a rare "blue dot," I have heard criticism of HR 1388 that goes beyond your logical argument involving the financial difficulties for volunteers entering the job market. I am embarrassed that the following conspiratorial conclusions exist regarding this recently signed law, but I would like to use this forum as an opportunity to debunk these theories that should not even exist in the first place.

Claim: Obama is using HR 1388 to brainwash America’s children and form an army of sorts, similar in structure to Hitler Youth.

In my opinion, the disconnect between the ideals of a leader trying to rally a vulnerable subset of society for hate and discrimination and the values of a President trying to promote community service to an age group who may not have had an chance to participate otherwise is astounding. First, language resulting in mandatory community service has been removed from the final bill that was signed into law after much criticism that it violated the 13th amendment (although it can be argued that 90% of students is a little high). Second, these service-learning programs should not be seen as “slave labor” initiatives, but as a unique opportunity for teachers to implement serving others into a cultural study of a student’s respective community. This bill was not written to force certain ideals onto today’s youth and should be used as an educational tool and not an obligation.

Claim: People should not be forced to work in conjunction with service organizations that promote ideals that participants do not support.

Again, I contend that these programs will not force participants to believe in any certain ideals of specific organizations. HR 1388 states that “(i) not less than 90 percent of such students participate in service learning activities as part of the program; or (ii) service-learning is a part of the curriculum in all of the secondary schools served by the local educational agency.” Therefore, this bill cannot even force participants to go to a specific service site; this responsibility is placed on either the individual or the respective school. One can argue that the school could overstep boundaries by mandating a specific program, but once again I would argue that this can serve as educating the students on a variety of different lifestyles and allowing them to form conclusive opinions in response to their experiences.

Claim: Offering stipends or salaries for community service does not help children learn that community service should be voluntary and will eventually create a decline in uncompensated community service.

This is the one claim that I feel is extremely valid and therefore my counter-argument must be taken with a grain of salt. I will assert that as opposed to “bribing” today’s youth into doing community service, this bill is simply creating an opportunity that previously was not prevalent. For example, if an underprivileged student has a passion for serving the community but is not able to act on this because financial constraints force him or her to get a summer job, he or she would now be able to make $500 or $750 simply by bettering the community.

To this end, I am glad his bill was signed into law and also agree with Matt Siemer’s point about deferred loans. This would allow our students to build an education based on community involvement and then maintain that education after college, leading to an increasingly socially conscious America.