As several recent reports have documented, volunteerism among college students is on the rise. According to data released this fall from the Corporation for National and Community Service, which administers the AmeriCorps national service program, 20 percent more students volunteered in 2005 than did three years earlier.
AmeriCorps, which began in the early 1990s as a way to tap into and stimulate interest in community service, is attracting more people per year (roughly 75,000, nearly a fourth of whom are college students) than ever before. Yet the federal funding picture doesn't appear as rosy. The Bush administration's fiscal 2008 budget would allocate about $480 million to AmeriCorps programs -- more than $25 million less than what's called for in the 2007 spending plan that Democratic Congressional leaders have crafted and significantly less than the fiscal 2006 enacted total.
More than one speaker at a Corporation for National and Community Service board meeting used the word "sufficient" to describe the president's request, with board members saying that no AmeriCorps volunteers would be removed from their sites due to the potentially shrinking budget. The corporation spends $150 million a year to fund programs.
Amy Cohen, director of the Learn and Serve America program, which allocates grants to colleges and schools to promote student service projects, said given the fiscal realities, "we will do the best we can."
Against that backdrop, and perhaps to attract the attention of lawmakers who see the service programs as being stagnant, the corporation has put forth an ambitious strategic plan that seeks to raise the number of annual college volunteers to 5 million by 2010, up from an estimated 3.3 million in 2005.
During a discussion with a three-person panel about the ways in which the corporation can help expand its programs, board members identified several solutions -- and fingered a few problems.
“There’s such a diversity of programs that we need to do a better job of connecting the dots,” said David Eisner, the corporation's chief executive officer.
Added Stephen Goldsmith, the board chairman: “We want to find ways to get colleges more active in reaching students -- some are active; others are not at all.”
The corporation is publicizing a list of institutions that provide incentives -- offering tuition assistance, waiving admissions fees -- to students who are program graduates. Some colleges provide money to match the $4,725 education award given by the corporation after a student completes the volunteer term.
Cohen and several board members said they would also like to see more students using the Federal Work Study program to serve off campus. The corporation's strategic plan calls for 20 percent of work that program's funds to be devoted to college students who serve away from campus -- up from 16 percent in 2005.
“This is some of the most visible work colleges can do in their communities,” Cohen said.
Board members agreed that every campus should designate a volunteer coordinator or identify an office that deals with AmeriCorps participants. Eisner said the corporation has focused on expanding part-time service opportunities for students who want flexibility in their schedules.
Wayne Meisel, a former board member, said that for college students, community service is too "episodic." After a semester project, students settle back into their regular routines without keeping up the volunteer work, he said.
Meisel, president of the Bonner Foundation, which endows community service scholarships, said he would like to see colleges collectively offer 50,000 service-based scholarships.
“We have athletic scholarships, we have academic scholarships, so why not service scholarships?” he said.
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