Get payback for volunteer work

College students looking for financial help can volunteer for extra credit -- credit toward tuition bills, that is. As the tightened job market leaves recent grads jobless, national service programs have seen more than double the number of applications they had last year.

Currently, there are three major national service programs -- AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps and Teach for America -- according to the Corporation for National and Community Service in Washington, D.C. The first two match willing workers up with service projects in exchange for a living stipend, health care and an education voucher for up to $5,350 per year of service for up to two years. Teach for America's voucher program is the same as the others, but workers get paid a full salary.

Program expansion

Starting today, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act will more than triple the number of available AmeriCorps positions, and significantly increase the educational award available to Corps members from the previous level of $4,725 per year to $5,350 -- the same amount as the maximum Pell Grant. The act also establishes new community service programs that allow middle and high school students as well as senior citizens to earn educational awards. However, the community programs are more limited in scope.

While the increase in funding to those who do service is undoubtedly a good thing for college students, experts are torn on whether the time commitment required for these programs is worth the reward.

Due in large part to its U.S.-based location and low age and educational requirements for entry, AmeriCorps is by far the biggest of the national programs with 75,000 current members, a number that's expected to jump to 250,000 over the next seven years.

"The AmeriCorps Education Award requires 1,700 hours of service, which is about 10 months working 40 hours a week, in order to get the full award," says Siobhan Dugan, public affairs specialist for the Corporation for National and Community Service. "The average living stipend is $11,000. It's tough to live on, but students can develop a career from this program."


How the programs work

To get started in AmeriCorps, students ages 18 and over decide whether they'd like to serve before they start college, after they've graduated or during school, taking time off to complete their AmeriCorps obligations. Once accepted to the program, students spend a full year working on a specific service project or a series of service projects, and then receive a $5,350 educational voucher which can be used to pay tuition or student loans. Once the one-year term is completed, students can choose to sign on for another term, and another voucher, or simply return to their regularly scheduled lives. While AmeriCorps offers a few shorter-term projects, these truncated programs only offer a prorated voucher commensurate with program length.

Those interested in the Peace Corps or Teach For America are required to wait until they've graduated; the Peace Corps requires an associate's degree or above to enlist and Teach For America requires a full bachelor's degree. Both TFA and the Peace Corps require roughly a two-year commitment and reward enlistees with a $10,700 education voucher.


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