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National-Service Deceptions

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College aid through national service is a centerpiece of President Clinton's ideas for education reform and even social change. Throughout his election campaign he promised to revolutionize college aid by letting young people work off tuition costs through service to their communities in such fields as health care, teaching, and law enforcement.

"National service will be America at its best ... [and] nothing less than the American way to change America,'' Mr. Clinton told cheering students at Rutgers University in March, where he provided details of his proposal for the first time. Earlier, in his State of the Union address to Congress, the President had promised that college loans would be available to "all Americans'' in return for national service. He has promoted the concept in ringing terms through every communications vehicle, from an interview on MTV to a bylined piece in The New York Times. Now his proposals are before Congress for action.

Unfortunately, as with so many of his promises, President Clinton is misleading the nation, particularly America's young people and their parents, in at least three important ways.

Mr. Clinton's plan to "harness the energy of our youth and attack the problems of our time,'' as he has phrased it, is a noble concept. Scores of organizations across the country already are running successful community-service programs. Some high schools require community service for graduation.

The concept of national service has deep roots. Service by the citizen-soldier is as old as the country. Abraham Lincoln's Homestead Act encouraged settlement of the frontier. William James made a powerful case for national nonmilitary service for the country's youths as long ago as 1910. Both Harry Truman's G.I. Bill and John Kennedy's Peace Corps embodied ideals of national service.

But "a lot of educators are troubled by the idea'' of paying for service to one's community, according to Patricia McGuire, the president of Trinity College. Describing herself as a "good Democrat and card-carrying liberal,'' she argues that it is wrong to financially reward students for community service. It should be voluntary, not paid.

This philosophical argument, however, shrinks in comparison to the outright deceptions in the Clinton proposal. In the retail marketplace the President's plan would be considered as bait and switch. In politics, it's known as blue smoke and mirrors.

First of all, Mr. Clinton continues to declare that his program would make college affordable for "every American'' or "all Americans.'' The amount he proposes either in loans or loan forgiveness is $6,500 for each year of national service, with a two-year limit. This amount would be enough to pay for a four-year education in a public college, although certainly not in a private college, where tuition and fees average more than $8,000 annually.

The real deception, however, is that Mr. Clinton is asking for only $7.4 billion to fund the program over the next four years. If tuition aid were limited to only the six million college students now getting college loans (of the roughly 14 million in college), that would cost $78 billion--more than 10 times the amount of money he has requested. Obviously, his plan falls far short of tuition for "all Americans'' wanting a college education.

In addition, the idea of even 100,000 young people in national service, as Mr. Clinton envisioned in his Feb. 28, 1993, New York Times article, is unrealistic in the face of some estimates that only 30,000 community-service jobs are available in the entire country.

And even if only half that number of youngsters prepared themselves to teach, provide health care, or be police officers, how are these national-service enrollees going to wrest these jobs away from current teachers, nurses, and cops?

The second major way President Clinton is misleading us is through the glowing description of his plan to replace current student-loan programs with a new system.

The promise of reformed college financial aid must make dollar signs dance happily in the minds of debt-ridden parents. The revamped lending program is billed as a way to "simplify the student-loan system, make repayment easier, reduce interest rates for students, and save taxpayers billions of dollars.'' That's how the U.S. Education Department described it in a news release.

Mr. Clinton's Education Department explains that schools would use "federal capital'' to make loans directly to students and their parents. "Federal capital'' is a neatly crafted euphemism for money that either is tax revenue or is borrowed funds, drawn against our swelling federal deficit. It certainly is not "capital'' in the traditional sense of the word.

The proposed revamping is based on the mistaken theory that only government can spend our money wisely and efficiently. "By cutting out middlemen and eliminating excessive profit [fees that banks now charge], billions can be saved,'' claims U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

"The Department of Education will implement a direct student-loan program that will provide all students with a range of flexible repayment options, including income-contingent repayment. Under this program,'' Mr. Riley explains, "students who chose to take low-paying community-service jobs ... will be able to repay their loans as a small percentage of their income so that they will not be overburdened by debt.''

Although the Administration maintains that a total of $43 billion will be saved in four years, a study by the respected Congressional Research Service disagrees. The C.R.S. study states, "Direct lending actually could increase budget outlays and reduce national income if it were unable to duplicate administrative-cost efficiencies achieved by private lenders.''

The C.R.S. questions whether the government would have the incentive the private market has to minimize costs. The report also says that Mr. Clinton's plan ignores credit risks, which are considerable. Student-loan defaults last year alone exceeded $3 billion. The report concludes that "conversion to direct [government] loans cannot be justified on the basis of either budget savings or increases in overall economic welfare.''

Risk, the Education Department implies, is really not much of a consideration. It states that the new legislation to implement a direct-loan system authorizes the department to offer loans to borrowers even "if lenders do not offer them acceptable income-sensitive repayment opportunities.'' In other words, if a student borrower is judged to be too risky for a bank, the Education Department will dig into its supposedly deep pockets to make the loan. So, instead of saving money, the government is likely to be spending as much or more money and taking more risks with the money.

The third major way in which President Clinton is hoodwinking students and parents is not only in suggesting college is financially possible for all Americans but also in glorifying college as a birthright for every American. Admittedly, it is the American dream of many voters. And he is trading on it to the hilt.

There is no question that, on average, the more education, the better off one will be economically. American higher education still commands respect in most parts of the world. But college is not for "all Americans'' and "every American.'' And Mr. Clinton has emphasized college. Trade schools are mentioned only incidentally.

The glamorized portrait of alma mater, of security behind ivy-covered walls of freedom of thought, and of assured training for life's work fades quickly when the realities on many campuses are known. Colleges today are in trouble in many ways, as Harvard University's president acknowledged recently in a speech to newspaper editors. And it's not related just to pinched faculty salaries, date rape, and lower alumni support.

At Ivy League colleges--where parents are charged an average of $22,000 a year for tuition, room, and board--a recent survey found shocking ignorance among students. More than two out of 10 didn't even know how many justices sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. Only half knew the current Speaker of the House of Representatives. Only 25 percent knew it was Lincoln who defined our democracy as "government of the people, by the people, for the people.''

Many universities today are bastions of moral relativism. "Politically correct'' speech and conduct controls over students mean less freedom than almost anywhere else in society. The study of Western civilization in many schools is disdained as unfair to minorities and women. It has been cast out and replaced with trivial, propaganda courses at more than a few institutions.

Politicization and liberal, government-is-good philosophy thrives at many universities; and so college is a place to indoctrinate young voters to Mr. Clinton's convictions.

Finally, as for the notion that a college diploma is the guaranteed ticket to a successful career--as implied in Mr. Clinton's hard sell to America's youths--some students may find themselves victims of still another overblown promise. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, an estimated 30 percent of college graduates may well have to settle for jobs that don't even require a college degree.

College today is not what it once promised. And, obviously, neither is President Clinton's much touted college-aid program.

Tait Trussell is an education writer living in Florida. He was formerly vice president of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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