Starry-eyed Optimist

Keeping up with the Obama administration is a serious challenge for an amateur wonk like me.  I can barely keep up with everything they are doing (which I see as a good thing), and I certainly can’t blog at their speed.

I was writing my post on transparency and accountability last night and took a break to watch Obama’s address (apparently it is not called a State of the Union speech when a new president has just taken office).  My intent had been to go back and finish that post afterwards, but one initiative Obama mentioned excited me so much that I had to write about it first.  I will let you read about it in the president’s own words:

That’s why — that’s why we will support — we will provide the support necessary for all young Americans to complete college and meet a new goal: By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. That is a goal we can meet.

Now — now, I know that the price of tuition is higher than ever, which is why, if you are willing to volunteer in your neighborhood or give back to your community or serve your country, we will make sure that you can afford a higher education. And to encourage…

And to encourage a renewed spirit of national service for this and future generations, I ask Congress to send me the bipartisan legislation that bears the name of Senator Orrin Hatch, as well as an American who has never stopped asking what he can do for his country, Senator Edward Kennedy.

Some background on why I think I find this announcement so exciting.  When President Clinton launched the Americorps program in the early 1990’s, I was very excited that there was a non-military option for national service.  In exchange for service, members received a (minimal) living stipend and an educational reward that could be used to forgive federal student loans or to pay for school.  Although the living stipend has had cost of living adjustments, the educational reward remains unchanged.  The end result being that a year or two of work did very little to help members pay for college.

I watch Americorp funding closely because I have had a front row seat during the Bush administration,  I have been a peer reviewer for the Corporation for National and Community Service (Americorps’ administrative entity) for several years and I have seen an increasing number of applicants who are struggling in their recruitment efforts.  I am also a commissioner for Oregon’s Commission for Voluntary Action and Service, who administers Americorps programs for our state, and that offers a different, but not less bleak, perspective.

I first learned of the increase in Americorps funding when I read the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  I have been keeping an eye on the implementation roll out.  So given that background, what was so new and exciting about Obama’s speech?  Last night it became clear that national service is a priority once again.  I happen to think that is a very good thing.

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