Congress

Democrats propose tuition help to boost AmeriCorps

Legislation aims to increase volunteer ranks to 1 million

Rep. John B. Larson, D-Conn., speaks at a press conference to introduce ACTION for National Service outside the Capitol on June 25, 2019. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats hope to attract more volunteers to AmeriCorps and other federal service programs by cutting college costs.

Legislation introduced Tuesday, dubbed the ACTION for National Service Act, would award those who work in federal service at least two years with up to four years of in-state tuition where their college is located. The awarded money would be exempt from federal taxes.

“Whether it's combating the opioid crisis, aiding in the recovery after natural disasters, building affordable housing or mentoring students,” said Rep. John B. Larson of Connecticut at a news conference, “we need the efforts of a whole generation of Americans who heed the call."

The bill would set a target of supporting at least 1 million federal service jobs a year within 10 years and raise the living stipend of those in AmeriCorps.

The bill was introduced by Larson and Joseph P. Kennedy II and Seth Moulton, both of Massachusetts. A companion bill was introduced in the Senate in April by Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island.

“Contribution remains far longer than you," said Kennedy, who appeared with Larson. “We cannot under any circumstance allow public service to become a privilege for those who can afford to dedicate themselves.”

AmeriCorps directs volunteers to communities to help improve education, address poverty, recover from and prepare for natural disasters, and restore natural resources, among other goals. 

Currently, volunteers are given student loan deferment and educational awards to help with higher education, vocational training or repaying existing loans, according to AmeriCorps.

[Nine spending bills down, three to go in House]

The amount of money currently awarded equals the maximum value of the Pell Grant in the first day of the fiscal year. For the 2018-2019 academic year, the Department of Education listed that as $6,095. The average cost of in-state tuition was $10,230 in 2018, according to data from the College Board.

AmeriCorps has about 75,000 volunteers, while Senior Corps has about 220,ooo volunteers. Both are funded through the federal Corporation for National and Community Service.

The House in its $985 billion fiscal 2020 four-bill appropriations package passed last week included $1.1 billion for the corporation, up $55 million from fiscal 2019 and $1 billion more than proposed by the Trump administration. Of that, $450 million would be for AmeriCorps, a boost of 6 percent over the current year. The administration proposed to end the program and others under the corporation. 

"Especially in today's day and age when so many are concerned about accumulating college debt,” said Larson, "to come up with a concept that says you serve your nation and we'll help forgive your college loan debt ... for every year of public service you get, we'll grant you two years of in-state college tuition."

[Sen. Bernie Sanders bill would forgive all college debt]

Under the bill, the National Service Foundation would be established to solicit donations and award benefits to volunteers. In fiscal 2020, $2.5 million would be authorized for startup costs.

“This generation is eager to serve and we turn away eligible applicants every year,” said Jennifer Ney, managing director of Voices for National Service, a coalition of national and local service organizations. 

“We have AmeriCorps and Senior Corps members serving in schools, homeless shelters, veterans service centers and so many places,” said Ney. “Those services would be lost if the president's budget went into effect.”

Larson has introduced a version of this bill previously, but it did not advance.

Currently, the bill has 180 co-sponsors, according to a statement by Larson. No Republicans have co-sponsored the bill yet.

Two prominent Democratic leaders co-sponsoring the bill are Democratic Caucus Chairman  Hakeem Jeffries of New York and Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico.

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