In his first State of the Union address, President George W. Bush structured his speech around his overriding goals of continuing the war on terrorism, protecting the homeland, and rebuilding the economy. To help enable America’s college students and recent graduates to support these goals, Bush proposed expanding AmeriCorps’ annual number of volunteers by 50 percent and nearly doubling its budget to almost $500 million.
For a generation still grappling to find its place after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Bush’s statement of support for AmeriCorps last night represents exactly what America’s youth need from their political leaders. Expanding funding for AmeriCorps — the nation’s largest federally run public service program — is among the most direct ways legislators can help transform the recently renewed interest in public service, especially among young people, into meaningful and constructive action.
Bush should be commended for reaching out to young, service-minded Americans in a very tangible way at a time when many other concerns obviously weigh heavily on his mind. By most accounts, AmeriCorps has been a success since its inception in 1993, when then President Bill Clinton created it with the twin goals of encouraging community service by younger Americans and expanding access to education. Over 200,000 students have graduated from the program, with enlistees performing tasks like tutoring children in urban slums, constructing low-income housing, or immunizing needy patients in overcrowded hospitals. Most AmeriCorps alumni refer to the program as providing life-changing experiences and invaluable steppingstones toward their long-term career and personal goals.
Bush’s proposal to expand AmeriCorps also resonates with his pursuit of more robust homeland security. With thousands of extra volunteers in their ranks, program directors can add manpower to the already existing valuable resources of youthful energy and commitment to advance a variety of important security projects across the country.
Bush and Congress should also look to re-emphasize the educational aspects of AmeriCorps. At its 5-year re-evaluation in 1998, it was shown that less than 54 percent of graduates had cashed in their scholarships. And in a poll taken at around the same time, only half included the scholarship as among the top three reasons for joining the program. Currently, the program provides only a $4,725 grant, which often fails to attract those who earnestly need money for scholarships. If Congress accepts Bush’s proposal for increased funding, it should increase the amount awarded to each volunteer and consider other ways to redesign the program so that it can legitimately help students pay for college.
It wasn’t so long ago that candidate Bush said he hoped someday to be known as “the education president.” Efforts like the proposal to expand AmeriCorps are a welcome assurance that Bush’s commitment to improving education and public service for and by young Americans remains strong.