The Call to Service

SERVICE to one's community is most effective when it is born of deep commitment.

This should be kept in thought when weighing the tuition-for-service program that President Clinton announced this week.

The president's proposal is aimed at two worthy goals: expanding access to post-secondary education; and instilling a sense of responsibility to the community and to creditors.

In its larger sweep, the program would involve at least 100,000 students by 1997, at a cost of from $7.4 billion to $8 billion, depending on whose estimates one uses. A student could repay tuition loans either through paycheck deductions or through a period of community service, before, during, or after he or she attends college. Savings to the government garnered through cutting the default rate on loans would be used to offset the cost of the overall program.

The president is starting small: As part of his $31 billion stimulus package, he is asking for $15 million to underwrite the cost of a "Summer of Service" project that would involve about 1,000 teens in 10 communities, who would receive $1,000 toward college or vocational training.

The modesty of this beginning is wise; his concept raises several issues that need to be addressed.

For example, increased access to student loans helps; but if rising costs outstrip loan amounts and availability, the program won't help much. And what of the quality of the service students would provide? Will participants receive adequate training? Will they view their activities as having inherent merit or merely as "doing time" to repay a loan?

The biggest danger may lie in overselling the program. The White House needs to clarify what proportion of the 14 million or so students currently enrolled in college would directly benefit from his proposal.

Moreover, it is unclear how much would be saved by having the federal government take over the student-loan program instead of retaining or modifying the current system.

If it passes Congress, the Summer of Service program should be closely watched. It may yield answers to these and other questions that could define the shape of a final program.

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