National Service Blues
IN describing his national service program, President Clinton explained that it would "expand educational opportunity, reward individual responsibility, and build the American community by bringing citizens together to tackle common problems."
These are worthwhile goals, and I have a natural sympathy for a proposal that seeks to instill in others a dedication to provide service.
But the program fails to achieve its primary goal: It limits, rather than expands, educational opportunity.
Mr. Clinton's proposal uses federal tax dollars to finance the college education of program participants, regardless of whether those participants need such assistance to "expand their educational opportunities."
In a year when the federal budget is so tight that the president has proposed reductions in and elimination of student aid funding, I cannot support a proposal that directs scarce federal resources to pay for the college educations of individuals who can afford to pay without the government's help.
I offered an amendment on the floor of the House when this legislation was being considered that would have required that the amount of the award for service not exceed the individual's need for higher education assistance. It would not limit any individual from participation in the national service program; it would allow every participant to receive the educational award to the full extent of his or her needs.
I have supported national and community service legislation in the past, and my home state of Pennsylvania has led the nation in prompting citizen service. But I find it unconscionable to use tax dollars to provide educational assistance to individuals who are not in need - particularly during these hard times of fiscal constraint when we must tell those same hard-working men and women that the educational opportunities of their children may be limited by a lack of adequate funding for needs-based post-s econdary aid.
I agree with my former colleague William H. Gray III, now president of the United Negro College fund, when he says: "The proposed program provides economic assistance precisely where we don't need it." It would create "a huge demand on limited federal resources."
Mr. Gray explained that the $7.4 billion program, which would help only an estimated 150,000 rich and poor students over four years, at a cost to the federal government of approximately $30,000 per student, could be better spent on programs designed specifically for the disadvantaged.
If we simply expanded the existing Pell Grant Program, we could provide 5 million more people with opportunities for higher education.
Gray suggested the possibility of providing loan forgiveness for college graduates from low- or middle-income backgrounds who enter such professions as teaching or medicine. Another option would be to expand work-study programs and require that 50 percent of the service be performed in the community.
Either way, we would be achieving a real expansion of educational opportunity for those who need it, utilizing our limited financial resources much more effectively, and encouraging the true spirit of volunteerism - rather than creating a program that, while full of good intentions, will defeat its own purpose.
If it is truly necessary to entice individuals to participate in this national service program by offering them a benefit that they do not need, we should seriously reexamine the appropriateness of this program.