Changes in work study funds raises discussions

The nation’s colleges and universities, the Bush administration, and some U.S. senators soon will have to answer a question worthy of an advanced seminar in philosophy:

How much can we expect of a good thing?

Every year the federal government spends more than $1 billion on work-study programs for about 1 million college students. Since 1965, the funds enable students to cover ever-rising tuition bills, and in a happy coincidence, provide a steady stream of cheap labor in cafeterias and libraries on America’s campuses.

Until last year, 5 percent of each college’s work-study jobs had to be in that alternate universe off campus – where kids need tutoring after school and soup kitchens need an extra cook and the elderly need meals delivered to their homes. Then, in a grand and hard-fought gesture, Congress raised the minimum to 7 percent for this year.

The protests that followed were frequently from the nation’s top-rated (and, ahem, wealthiest) schools, who said it was burdensome and unfair to enforce such a mandate. Many of those schools barely made the grade as it was.

So when Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., introduced a bill to raise the floor to 25 percent, they expected fierce resistance from the higher education lobby.

The administration’s proposal is woefully spare of details. No explanation of when schools will have to reach the 50 percent mark, nor what the penalties will be if they don’t. There’s vague talk of incentives, but no mention of monitoring such an audacious increase.

“We wanted to set the bar high,” says Leslie Lenkowsky, the new CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. “We’re challenging them to take this very seriously.”

They should. While on average, 14 percent of federal work-study funds go to community service, many of the most prestigious schools are at the bottom of the class. And while plenty of volunteer work happens on campuses, college students in general offer less of their time to community causes than the average adult.

Lenkowsky’s argument, and it’s a good one, is that the habits of citizenship start young.

By the age of maturity, the moment a student is launched into adult life, good habits must be ingrained for a lifetime.

These issues ought to be debated when the President’s proposal goes to Capitol Hill within the next month. Meantime, college campuses should be adjusting to a new reality: There are strings attached to that public money, and the community is pulling them.

Jane Eisner is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.