Friday, March 20, 2009

Help for first generation college kids, and others

Many years ago, now, I wrote a argument proposing a fairly elaborate National Service Corps for the US. The essay was published in Philosophy and Public Policy, and then republished in a decadal "best of" anthology from the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. The paper was a response to a previous argument from Bill Galston, an important Democratic party think tank researcher, and Robert K. Fullinwider, an IPPP scholar.

I obviously can't claim that this new program stems from my paper. Several other authors have had the same idea over the years.

But I am glad to see this bill. It will make life much better for students from lower income families who have a good work ethic, but few resources to get through college.

The most important resource is rarely cash.

One thing that volunteering does for you, especially if your parents and grandparents never went to college and don't have much interest in your career or ability to give advice, all of which is often true for first-time college families, is that it exposes you to new situations where you will meet new, more worldly mentors at that crucial time early in your career, people who can help you norm your reasoning about college and about careers to realistic notions. You can get experience, advice, direction, and recommendations.

At age 18 or 19, good advice is better than gold.

Kids from wealthy families take all this help for granted. Kids from first generation college families often have no clue. This is because the parents often have no clue.

My own parents still don't understand what I do for a living, nor are they even really aware that I even have a doctorate. They have no facility to understand, really, what it's all about. They've never been able to give me any helpful or realistic advice. Honestly, I don't think they really care, either. They do care about me, but not about may career. It's just another job to them. I don't blame them for this, neither do I particularly mind. They both failed the UK's former "II-plus exam," a hideous education policy that trash-canned millions of kids at the very early age of eleven and reinforced the terrible UK social class structure. Accordingly they both dropped out of school at age 15, able to read and write and figure a little, but not much else. The consequence for me was, no-one was around to help me figure out how to get on in the world. I had to invent it all for myself. I was never particularly tractable, so this was a messy decade or two for me.

But that means I am extremely concerned about helping my own students who lack these resources.

When I can get them to listen. Students of course, don't always appreciate what you give them!

The money is helpful too.

Published: March 18, 2009
WASHINGTON — The House voted Wednesday to approve the largest expansion of government-sponsored service programs since President John F. Kennedy first called for the creation of a national community service corps in 1963.

The legislation, which passed by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 321 to 105, would more than triple the number of service positions by expanding AmeriCorps and creating volunteer programs focused on education, health care, clean energy and veterans. The total number of positions would grow to 250,000 from 75,000 now in AmeriCorps.

The Senate is expected to adopt a nearly identical bill early next week.

The action by the House came three weeks and a day after President Obama in his first speech to a joint session of Congress called for “a renewed spirit of national service for this and future generations,” and lawmakers said they were answering his challenge.

The broad expansion of AmeriCorps, at a cost of nearly $6 billion over the next five years, would establish Mr. Obama as the boldest proponent of service programs since Kennedy exhorted Americans to “ask what you can do for your country.”

Mr. Obama, in a statement, praised the House vote. “At this moment of economic crisis, when so many people are in need of help and so much needs to be done, this could not be more urgent,” he said, adding, “It is up to every one of us to do his or her small part to make the world a better place.”

The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, said, “This has been a great day.”

Critics, however, expressed concern about the cost of the measure, and some said the money could be better spent, perhaps on raises for members of the military. A single Democrat joined 104 Republicans in opposing the bill; 251 Democrats and 70 Republicans voted for it.

In addition to expanding the number of positions, the bill would raise the education stipend for volunteers to $5,350 — the same amount as a Pell Grant.

The legislation is a top priority of the first lady, Michelle Obama, who has said public service will be a main focus of hers in the White House. She founded the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, an AmeriCorps program, after leaving her law career.

Representative George Miller, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said Mrs. Obama had pulled him aside at a White House dinner to introduce herself and express her keen interest in the bill moving quickly.

At a lunch with Mr. Obama the next day, Mr. Miller recounted the conversation, aides said, prompting a jovial warning from the president. “Speaking from long-term experience,” he said, “it sounds to me like you better get that bill out of committee.”

Kennedy’s service program, which began after his death, was called Vista, Volunteers in Service to America. The House bill is the GIVE Act, for Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education. The Senate legislation has a simpler name: the Serve America Act.

Mr. Obama’s budget provides $1.2 billion for the expansion of programs in the next fiscal year.

The House bill seeks to encourage middle school and high school students to engage in volunteer activities, allowing them to earn a $500 education credit to be used for college costs. It also establishes “youth engagement zones,” a new service-learning program intended to establish partnerships between community organizations and schools in high-poverty neighborhoods.

The bill seeks to establish Sept. 11 as a national day of service though it would not be a formal holiday.

Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland and a major proponent of the legislation, invoked the nation’s long history of service programs, saying, “This is not about programs; this is about value.”

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