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Precollege Option Eyed for Service Proposal

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WASHINGTON--President-elect Bill Clinton's national-service proposal will likely include--and perhaps emphasize--an option allowing high school graduates to participate in the program in exchange for college tuition, according to members of the transition team and others who have helped shape the plan.

The addition of such a facet would represent a significant expansion of the program Mr. Clinton described during his Presidential campaign.

While on the stump, Mr. Clinton spoke only of creating a "national service trust'' under which college graduates would pay off their federal-loan debts by serving their country or community.

But as the advent of his Administration drew near, Mr. Clinton and his advisers began considering a broader program that would include precollegiate and postcollegiate options, as well as the inclusion of students who do not plan on pursuing education beyond high school, observers say.

"I think a lot of different people, both in the policy field and in the legislative field, emphasized the importance of precollege servers,'' said William Galston, a professor of public affairs at the University of Maryland who is spearheading the transition team's research and analysis effort on national service.

"The President-elect believes strongly in the idea of reciprocal obligation--that citizenship works best when people that receive something from the community give something back to the community,'' Mr. Galston said. "National service is a very good way to turn that idea of reciprocal obligation into reality.''

The national-service plan, which is expected to be presented to Congress during the first 100 days of Mr. Clinton's Administration, is likely to be his first major education initiative.

In addition to community service, Mr. Clinton has suggested reforming the federal student-aid program by making loans available to all and by allowing college graduates to repay their debts based upon their income.

Birth of an Idea

Persons who have helped shape the service plan disagree on when it came to include high-school-age participants.

Toni Schmiegelow, the executive director of the City Volunteer Corps in New York City, said that although Mr. Clinton did not talk about including high school graduates in his national-service proposal during his campaign, service-group executives very early on had sold him on the idea.

"I think they heard it loud and clear from us during the campaign, and they said during the campaign, 'We hear you, we agree with what you're saying, but we don't want to talk about it now. We've got a good thing going,' '' Ms. Schmiegelow said.

According to Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute, the proposal always envisioned precollegiate servers.

"We long thought the emphasis of national service ought to be on people just out of high school or that age,'' said Mr. Marshall, whose think tank is associated with the Democratic Leadership Council, the moderate group that Mr. Clinton helped create.

One of the attractions of having high school graduates participate is that they are better suited to low-skill, labor-intensive jobs than are college graduates, Mr. Marshall said.

He added that high school graduates are among the most likely to benefit from participation.

"Those people who are just leaving the nest, if you will, those that might not be sure what to do with their lives, those that might not be mature enough, might be able to benefit the most from something like this,'' he said.

Others involved in the debate, however, say the idea did not take root until an early-December meeting in Boston attended by high-ranking transition officials, representatives of leading members of Congress, and members of the community-service field.

One of the few areas of agreement to emerge from the meeting, some participants said, was the inclusion of precollegiate servers in the national-service trust.

According to Charles Moskos, a sociology professor at Northwestern University and an expert on national service, the service corps would have a wider range of races and income levels with the inclusion of precollegiate participants.

Adding people from that age group also would be the first step toward making service "the major way, but not the only way'' to obtain federal financial aid for college, he said.

'Mandate' Model

Details of the national-service trust will not be known until President-elect Clinton makes several decisions about the program's direction.

A chapter in "Mandate for Change,'' the P.P.I. book that outlines critical issues facing the Clinton Administration, provides a framework.

Written by Mr. Moskos, the model service program he describes would place participants in vital service jobs that are going unfilled.

Participants would serve for two years. Each year, they would get about $10,000 in wages and another $10,000 to be used for college, job training, or a down payment on a house.

The federal government would enlist as many as 200,000 volunteers and would rely on existing community groups and service providers to place and supervise participants.

To discourage placing students in meaningless work, the organizations would pay the government $1,000 for each participant placed with them.

Higher-education officials estimate that each participant could cost the government $25,000 or more a year.

Total federal spending on the program could range between $8 billion and $12 billion annually, according to transition-team estimates.

Although transition officials say that the service program would save the federal government as much as $3 billion a year by eliminating student-loan defaults, it remains unclear where Mr. Clinton will find the extra $5 billion to $9 billion needed to pay for the new program.

Moreover, larger than expected deficit projections released last week could cause Mr. Clinton to downsize the program or abandon it.

Remaining Issues

Mr. Galston said the President-elect and his senior staff also need to resolve "a dozen or more questions'' about the proposal.

Mr. Clinton is reviewing a set of options prepared by Mr. Galston on the creation of the trust that address the following issues:

  • Participants. While it seems clear that high school and college graduates will be eligible to participate, less certain is whether they will be required to perform service full time, whether programs will be residential, whether placements will be made in groups or individually, what the criteria will be for selection, and how many participants will be selected.
  • Timing. The service program is generally considered one of Mr. Clinton's top four priorities, along with the economy, health care, and campaign-finance reform.

Transition officials have said they hope to send legislation to Capitol Hill by mid-January. Some observers have doubts about the date, given Mr. Clinton's already heavy workload.

  • Worker displacement. Labor unions fear that participants in a national-service corps may force union members out of their their jobs. On the stump, Mr. Clinton often suggested the creation of police, teacher, and environmental corps.

Representatives of the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees have met with transition-team members to discuss the issue. They say the transition officials have assured them that the service program will meet existing, unmet needs.

"Our people toil in situations where they have 100 things they can't get done every day, and they're far from upset by the prospect of 20 or 40 of those things gettings done,'' said Lawrence Gold, the director of higher education for the A.F.T. "But there can be pitfalls in this like anything else.''

Mr. Gold said the union is drafting a set of criteria that would help define eligible jobs and geographic areas in which there are worker shortages.

  • Organization. Mr. Clinton appears convinced that the service trust should place students through existing community groups rather than through a new federal bureaucracy, sources say.

It is also likely that a federal commission, possibly the Commission on National and Community Service, would monitor the operation.

  • Existing aid program. Higher-education lobbyists are deeply concerned about the future of the current aid program.

In particular, they worry that the program will shift the bulk of student-aid funds from poor to more affluent students, and that federal aid and education will no longer be linked.

"This is an effort to allow the children of doctors and lawyers to do a little bit of do-good work based on a government stipend, which they get to go along with mommy and daddy's money,'' one lobbyist complained. "All in all, a terrible idea. Great political slogan, but it does not work.''

In response to such criticism, Mr. Galston said that Mr. Clinton has pledged to support the Pell Grant program.

Others in higher education are somewhat more enthusiastic about the proposal.

"We want to help this idea along and we want to make it work,'' said H. Patrick Swygert, the president of the State University of New York at Albany.

Richard F. Rosser, the executive director of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said that although he still has many questions about the trust, he is pleased with Mr. Clinton's commitment to income-contingent loans.

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