Nunn Softens Call for Linking Student Aid, Youth Service
Washington--In a move that could speed passage of a national youth-service bill, Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia last week softened his proposal that military or community service be required as a condition for receiving federal financial aid for college.
In the second of a series of hearings before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, Mr. Nunn defended his proposed "citizenship and national service act," which would offer vouchers for college tuition, job training, or housing to young people who completed a period of military or community service after graduating from high school.
But he added that it was meant "to be a conceptual starting point" and said he welcomed "suggestions and constructive criticism" from members of the committee.
Eight bills proposing some form of national youth service have been introduced in the Senate, and a majority of the Labor and Human Resources Committee's membership has sponsored one or more of the measures--including its chairman, Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts.
Mr. Nunn's bill has attracted the most controversy, however, because of a provision that would require students to perform national service in order to receive education assistance.
The plan was designed to eventually replace existing federal student grant and loan programs for those able to serve.
Stakes for Low-Income Students
The Georgia Democrat has argued that his proposed voucher system--offering $10,000 for each year of community service and $12,000 per year for military service--would open doors for low-income students unlikely to be able to afford college otherwise.
Because the offer is more attractive than existing federal aid programs, Mr. Nunn maintains, funds now available for grants and loans could eventually be rerouted to help pay for the youth-service program.
He reasons that, because students would earn their vouchers and would not be required to pay them back, such a shift would also help eliminate skyrocketing loan-default rates, which have increased by 700 percent since 1981.
The proposal has drawn strong criticism, however, from higher-education officials, who see in it the prospect of further cuts in federal tuition-assistance programs.
College officials also point out that Mr. Nunn's plan would put an unfair burden of service on poorer students, since those from wealthy families would be able to pay their own college costs, thus avoiding the service requirement.
In his testimony before the committee last week, Mr. Nunn repeatedly emphasized that, for the many students who would be exempt from the volunteer requirement, existing federal aid programs should not be fully replaced by a youth-service plan.
Those exempt would include disabled students, individuals with "family obligations or other extenuating circumstances, such as financial hardship, or those who are willing to serve but cannot be placed in an appropriate position," Mr. Nunn said.
Limited Number of Slots
He also argued that the Citizens Corps created by the bill should have a limited number of slots--from 750,000 to 1 million--and that students who did not win a position could still apply for federal grants or loans.
"The only student I can imagine who will fare worse if [the legislation] is enacted is an able-bodied 18- or 19-year-old with no extenuating financial or family circumstances, who simply refuses to perform any service at all," Mr. Nunn said.
However, Senator Kennedy, citing Education Department statistics indicating that about 6 million students received federal aid in 1987, pointed out that, if a limit were placed on the number allowed to perform community service, a majority of those who need aid would be forced to rely on existing programs.
In a further compromise, Mr. Nunn suggested that his bill be tested in pilot form before beginning its phase-in period. "It would be wise to fly before we buy," he said.
He also noted that his bill could be combined with a measure introduced by another committee member, Senator Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland. The Mikulski bill is also co-sponsored by Mr. Nunn.
Ms. Mikulski's youth-service proposal is fashioned after the National Guard, in that students would be able to perform their service working part time on weekends or during the summer, earning vouchers as they go for education, training, or housing.
It has been offered, however, as an alternative to federal aid and would not replace any existing programs.
Committee aides noted that because Mr. Kennedy has decided to debate the issue before the full committee, it is likely that a compromise bill combining features of all of the proposals will emerge.
"Senator Nunn is a smart man," said one aide. "He could see that there was an enormous amount of opposition to parts of his bill, and that it was focusing the debate on the more negative aspects of national youth service, rather than the positive."
A hearing on the issue was scheduled for this week in Boston, and aides said they expected two more to be held in April.