Visionary New Bill Would Settle Student Debt With Civic Service

State assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) recently proposed a new bill that would pay college fees for students in exchange for two years of civic service. While the proposal may conjure images of campy propaganda films stating “”service equals citizenship,”” it is a unique idea that, if properly implemented, could kill two proverbial birds with one piece of paper.

Although California’s politicians are still haggling over the finer details, the basic idea of Feuer’s bill is simple: It would have the state pay four years of college tuition and fees for UC and CSU students who are eligible to receive student loans in exchange for two years of employment in civic service or a nonprofit agency, assigned according to what best suits the student based on his or her major. Alternatively, the state would pay two years’ tuition and fees in exchange for two years of volunteer work, with at least 600 hours of volunteer service per year.

Rather than simply slashing fees across the board – benefiting all students while forcing taxpayers to assume the cost – this bill targets only those who need the financial assistance. Moreover, the state receives the short-term perk of having more civic servants – some areas are in desperate need. Civic service is a noble profession, but modern economic realities mean that the state should provide a competitive level of compensation to attract the personnel such services need. Paying for a student’s college education is something that few employers offer, and can be a powerful incentive.

While the state might appear to be getting a more expensive policeman or firefighter, the legislation assigns college graduates to local governments that have trouble with recruitment and are in most need of civic servants. Similarly, while the two-year requirement may seem short to pay for college, a longer requirement may deter too many people from accepting the offer.

Not everyone is cut out for a job in civic service. But there are many qualified people who might not consider public service without an early incentive. For example, many students have found their calling through the ROTC program – students who might not have joined the military otherwise.

Not only does the state reap the immediate benefit of increasing recruitment in essential professions such as firefighting, the bill ensures the long-term vitality of the state. Although the state and its taxpayers must shoulder the immediate cost of paying for many students’ college education, those same students will become taxpayers themselves.

With an education from a school like UCSD, students benefiting from the program will have the potential to be in a higher tax bracket, therefore enabling them to pay back the state with their own taxes – assuming they don’t move. California gets more long-term tax revenue from college-educated, well-employed persons who have the capacity to buy a house and pay property taxes than it does from people who cannot afford to do so because their education does not permit them to get a job that pays enough, or somebody who is paying off student loans instead of a mortgage.

Additionally, the state’s economic prosperity depends on having a highly educated workforce in places such as Silicon Valley. California needs to encourage as many people as possible to get a college education in order to remain competitive in the global economy; if the state loses its edge, it will have far greater financial problems than paying a few students’ college tuition. While conventional student loans already exist, under the new bill, the student would not be merely repaying a debt but providing a public service as well.

The greatest problem for this legislation is how it would be funded. Although the bill would be difficult to implement, given California’s current financial situation, that obstacle only requires some creative thinking. State politicians could even take the unprecedented step of raising taxes to pay for it. A California with a well-educated population that can deal with the problems of the future is well worth the investment. Accomplishing it through this bill means the state gets at least two years of direct public service from each student as well.