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Bills link service and financial aid

By Mauricio Roman

At a Thursday dinner forum sponsored by the MIT Center for Public Service, three speakers discussed some of the bills currently before Congress and the Massachusetts Legislature that would link public service and financial aid programs.

Adjunct Professor of Urban Studies Melvin H. King, who is a former state representative, spoke in support of his "Future Corps" bill, filed before the state legislature. Sam Jones, assistant director of the MIT Student Financial Aid Office, presented his views on a proposal sponsored by US Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA). Nunn's bill is one of 14 on this topic currently before Congress. Mark O'Connor, a legislative assistant to US Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), explained Kennedy's bill, also currently before Congress, and contrasted it with Nunn's proposal.

King said his proposal is designed to help those who do not have the funds to attend college and who do not wish to enter the military. Under his plan high school graduates would put in two years of service in a non-profit organization within the state of Massachusetts. During those two years, a student would accumulate "college credit and financial credit," he said. A student could earn enough money to attend a four-year state-supported school within Massachusetts or apply the equivalent toward tuition at a private school.

King gave a two reasons for his proposal. First, he said that the rising costs of college education make it impossible for many people to attend college, although educated citizens benefit the whole society. Second, he said his bill would provide an alternative for students who join the military because they have no other way to pay tuition.

Jones said that Nunn's proposal grew out of a congressional coalition hostile to the existing financial aid system. Nunn's bill calls for two years of full-time work in educational, human, and conservation service or military service after graduation. Students choosing the military would have to be in the reserve for six additional years.

Participants in Nunn's program would get $10,000 to $12,000 per year for education or a down payment on a home.

Nunn's bill would reduce the number of recipients of government financial aid from six million to 800,000, according to Jones. He added that the bill would allow only high school graduates to receive financial aid. "How about people who drop out between kindergarten and 12th grade?" he asked. "They need help, and they need to grow into the idea of going to college."

O'Connor discussed Kennedy's proposed "Serve America Program." This plan is based on voluntary service within the framework of already existing community service programs, O'Connor said.

Under Kennedy's program, students from kindergarten to 12th grade would participate in already established community service programs, O'Connor said. The program is aimed at students of all ages so that "from the very beginning they can make a lifetime commitment to voluntary service," he said. O'Connor cited another Kennedy-supported program in which kindergarteners fold napkins for nursing homes.

Kennedy's program differs from Nunn's proposal in that it is based on voluntary service, while Nunn's program is based on full-time paid work. Kennedy's proposal is also more encompassing than Nunn's proposal because it involves school dropouts and older people, O'Connor said.

"It is fortunate," O'Connor said, "that Sen. Kennedy is chairman of the Labor and Human Resource Committee, which covers all of the education programs, and Sen. Nunn's bill is before that committee."

O'Connor pointed out that the relatively high cost of Nunn's bill -- $5.3 billion including the phasing out of the current financial aid system -- is unlikely to win support because of the large federal budget deficit.