National service may be only a narrow path to college Clinton initiative apparently would help relative few

details are due tomorrow

April 29, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Parents and students hoping to pay fo college through President Clinton's national service program may be disappointed when details are released tomorrow.

Only about one out of every 100 students will be able to participate in the program when it is fully implemented, according to administration budget estimates.

After working full-time for one year at minimum wage in a ZTC community service job, a student would receive a $6,500 bonus to repay college loans or pay tuition. After two years, the $13,000 in bonuses -- the maximum any student could receive -- would represent less than a year of tuition, room and board at the average private university and about two years' worth at the average public university.

"National service is not a program that is going to dramatically increase access to higher education or reduce the growing loan burdens that students face," said David Merkowitz, spokesman for the American Council on Education, an association of colleges and universities.

Another official, who asked not to be identified, said Clinton aides confess privately that they have no idea whether the plan will be attractive to students.

"We're kind of shooting in the dark," the official said. "This may be popular in concept, but when push comes to shove and students have to commit a year or two to paying a loan off, people may have second thoughts."

Mr. Clinton is to unveil details of the plan tomorrow in a speech at the University of New Orleans and to submit legislation to Congress. Knight-Ridder Newspapers obtained a summary of the bill, called the National Service Trust Act of 1993.

During the presidential campaign, Mr. Clinton's vow to create a national service program was a sure-fire applause line, and he left many listeners with the impression that it would be widely available to cash-strapped families, just as the GI Bill was for military veterans.

But budget constraints have forced the administration to scale back the program. Even at its smaller size, national service faces uncertain prospects in Congress.

While organized opposition has not materialized, neither has overwhelming support. One logical constituency -- colleges and universities -- has been lukewarm about national service, concerned that it might siphon funds from other student aid programs and benefit relatively few students at high cost.

"In the current atmosphere, anything the president sends up that costs a vast amount of money will be controversial," said an education lobbyist tracking the Clinton plan. After a phase-in period, the program would cost $3.4 billion a year in 1997 and 1998, according to Mr. Clinton's budget.

Backers of the plan, citing its appeal during the campaign and Mr. Clinton's deep interest in national service, are more optimistic.

"I think the prospects are good because Bill Clinton made it a centerpiece of his agenda, and he ran on it," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a moderate Democratic think tank with strong ties to Mr. Clinton.

C. Peter Magrath, president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, was also upbeat. "I think it speaks to an idealistic streak" in Americans, he said.

According to the summary of the legislation, Mr. Clinton would create a Corporation for National Service to oversee the community service program.

The board would work with commissions established in each state to certify schools, police departments, health clinics and other institutions that would employ the students.

Students 17 and older would apply directly to the local agency or state commission to become eligible. Students could work before, during or after college.

For one year of full-time work or two years of part-time service, a student would receive a $6,500 "national service educational award" that would be used to pay for college expenses or repay a student loan.

The government also would provide students with a stipend comparable to the minimum wage of $4.25 an hour and pay 85 percent of the cost of health insurance for participants lacking coverage. Child-care expenses also would be available for parents.

By 1997, the program would be available to between 100,000 and 150,000 students, according to administration estimates.

There are 16 million enrolled in college now .

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