The Obameter

Encourage more public service by college students

Under the current federal work-study program - which provides nearly $1 billion dollars a year to about 3,400 colleges and universities to subsidize part-time jobs for students - at least 7 percent of that funding is supposed to go to community service jobs like tutoring. Obama believes we need to raise the service threshold to 25 percent "so that more students can afford to engage in public service. This will help more than 200,000 college students a year complete part-time public service while they are in school. Obama ... will work to help colleges and universities reach the goal of 50 percent in serve-study advanced by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and by General Colin Powell as the chair of America's Promise."


Progress, but not as much as promised

In promising to encourage more public service by college students, candidate Barack Obama was following a rare lead: President George W. Bush. But, like Bush, he has been forced to temper his goals.

In 2002, after his State of the Union speech, Bush proposed requiring every college and university to spend half of its federal work-study funding on community service jobs. U.S. Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Iowa, and John McCain, R-Ariz., also introduced legislation that would boost the percentage of work-study funding spent on community service jobs from 7 percent to 25 percent.

But under the work-study system, the students" employers chip in. Groups such as the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators have been wary of boosting the public service requirement because charitable groups may not be able to pay their share, putting a larger share of the burden on colleges themselves. The Bayh-McCain bill failed to pass, and other efforts to significantly increase the amount of work-study money targeted to public service jobs have gone nowhere.

This March, however, Congress beefed up the requirements and added incentives for schools to encourage public service. The "Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act,” H.R. 1388, requires every college and university to meet the 7 percent threshold. (According to an investigation by the Medill News Service, many colleges were surpassing the 7 percent limit but others weren"t reaching it.) The act also established grants to help schools get students involved in community service projects and created the Campuses of Service program, which provides extra funding for up to 25 institutions of higher learning that have demonstrated a major commitment to community service-oriented curricula and volunteerism.

There are apparently no active bills now in Congress to raise the community-service requirements for the federal work-study program any further. While Obama didn"t get all that he had promised, he did get some. rates this promise as a Compromise.


42 U.S. Code, section 2753, Grants for Federal Work-Study Programs , courtesy of the Cornell University Law School U.S. Code Collection.

Congressional Research Service summary of H.R. 1388, the "Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act," which passed in March 2009.

Background on federal work-study programs and community service, from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, Jan. 31, 2002.

U.S. Department of Education, Federal Work-Study Program.

U.S. Department of Education, Federal Work-Study funding .
Federal Work-Study Program information , Corporation for National & Community Service.

Medill News Service special report on the Federal Work-Study Program.