ON the campaign trail Bill Clinton was passionate about setting up a National Service Trust fund to provide every young person who wanted to go to college the means of doing so, in exchange for community service after graduation.
The president-elect is still enthusiastic about the plan, but he will have to answer some questions about it that were not raised during the campaign.
Mr. Clinton proposes throwing out existing student-loan programs in favor of the national service plan, which would be open to everyone regardless of means. Students would receive tuition money to be paid back through post-graduate earnings or by volunteering to work within the community for two years. They could serve in a number of fields including teaching, nursing, or police work.
But what will the new plan entail? How can it be efficiently implemented? Clinton will have to answer questions about how much students should be allowed to borrow each year and what kind of a contribution their families should be required to make.
Precedents for federally run public-service programs include Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps and Kennedy's Peace Corps. The present offers some models too. Members of Clinton's transition team, including Al From, head of domestic policy for the transition, were recently in Boston to learn more about City Year, an organization that employs young people to work on a stipend for nine months; those who complete the program receive a $5,000 public service award.
Before he can get rolling with the plan, the new president will have to figure out how much it will cost and how much additional money might be needed. In City Year's case, funds came exclusively from the private sector until this year, when the program received a grant from the Commission on National and Community Service. City Year estimates that each participant costs its program about $20,000 a year - a pretty hefty bill if a similar program were implemented on a national scale.
Critics of national-service programs include the unions and the military. Organized labor anticipates union jobs being encroached on by such programs. The armed services fear their pool of potential recruits would shrink. But the potential benefits outweigh these concerns. Students who otherwise would not be able to borrow enough money for tuition can go ahead with higher education plans and become more productive members of society. Those who aren't likely to have post-college salaries large enough to p ay back loans would have another, more feasible, option.
Clinton is a great advocate of Americans giving something back in return for help from their government. Some may have to defer potentially lucrative careers for a few years in order to fulfill national service obligations. But the experience of public service should only enhance their careers in the long run.