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.

Dugan says that the AmeriCorps living stipend of $11,000 is low for a reason. Tied to the local community poverty line, stipends are low to force Corps members to live like those they serve. However, while earning the low wage helps Corps members empathize with community members, it also effectively prevents them from saving money for school.

“A lot of times it makes sense for students to just get a regular job, especially if they’re only going to do a service program part-time,” says Steve DiBenedetto, director of student finance for National-Louis University in Chicago. “If they’re only working for a few months anyway, they’re going to want to make as much money as possible.”

DiBenedetto adds that participants should always evaluate the per-hour pay before signing onto a service program.

Weigh the options

On the other hand, if you add the value of the tuition vouchers to the wage, the compensation looks appealing. Brandon Rogers, a college consultant for AmeriCorps and former financial aid counselor for The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., says students choosing between service programs and a traditional job should evaluate their compensation in light of the bigger financial aid picture. For example, a student’s income may impact financial aid awards since it’s a variable used to determine financial need.

“The educational voucher from AmeriCorps is one of the very few benefits that you can receive that won’t impact your financial aid package,” he says, adding that vouchers can only be used to pay back student loans or current expenses at a two- or four-year college or vocational school.

“For example, if you get a regular job and you make $10 an hour, all of that money you earn counts against your financial aid package because it’s income. Your AmeriCorps voucher is exempt from that calculation, so it’s as if you made no money whatsoever.”

According to the Department of Education, students can earn up to $3,750 for the 2009-to-2010 school year, and $4,500 for the 2010-to-2011 year, without consequence. For every dollar earned above that threshold, the government will subtract 50 cents from the student’s federal financial aid eligibility.

Those who complete the AmeriCorps national service program for two years will struggle more to pay rent, but will also have $10,700 — or $5,350 per year — to pay tuition bills with, will qualify for the full federal aid package and will receive additional funds if they attend any of the institutions nationwide that match AmeriCorps education vouchers.

The national service programs have a couple of other advantages over traditional jobs for youth. “Students with high school diplomas only qualify for entry-level positions, and you’d be hard-pressed to save $5,000 or $10,000 in that kind of work,” says Charlene Haykel, CEO of the financial aid consulting firm Simply Student Aid. “These programs also provide valuable leadership opportunities, so they look better to employers and admissions people than a lot of entry-level jobs.”

The drawback: Education vouchers are taxable and could detract from any private scholarships or grants that a school may offer.

One way to avoid any financial aid confusion is simply to enroll in a service program after graduation. All three national service programs will pay the interest on unsubsidized Stafford, Perkins and federal consolidated loans during the service term.

Students who don’t want to wait until they turn the tassel should ask an aid counselor for help in the salary versus stipend debate, says DiBenedetto.

“An officer can go over what your options are and give you a sense of the (aid) impact it will have if you use a voucher to pay for your education or if you earn an estimated wage,” he says. “What’s right depends on your goals and financial circumstance.”