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Increase the Segal Education Award
By Michael Duffy, President of GO Foundation
Yesterday I sent a memorandum to Michael Smith, the CEO of AmeriCorps asking for his support for a sizeable increase in the Segal education award that AmeriCorps members earn after their year of service.
The award is named for attorney Eli J. Segal, pictured here with Sen. Ted Kennedy at the ceremony when President Clinton signed the legislation creating AmeriCorps. Segal, who then became the first CEO of the agency, worked with GO Foundation Board member Susan Stroud to stand the agency up in the mid 1990’s. Susan co-authored the memo with me, the body of it is below.
The recent actions by the Biden administration to relieve the burden of student loan indebtedness came as welcome news to us and to the AmeriCorps members who serve students at schools throughout the GO network. Our concern is that this action may not be enough to allow for a truly diverse and fulsome pool of young people to choose to take on national service. We strongly urge you and the Biden administration to petition Congress to dramatically boost the Eli J. Segal Education award during the coming appropriations cycle. Doing so would promote the twin goals of helping AmeriCorps members to reduce debt they may have and to give us a fighting chance of finding the tutors we need to serve the students in this country, who are struggling academically because of the pandemic.
As you may know, in June, non-profit leaders from around the country gathered for a recruitment summit in Washington DC to discuss the challenge of finding the young people needed to serve in the AmeriCorps programs they run. As participants compared notes, it was clear that nearly every organization there was facing massive recruitment shortfalls: over the last two years, applications to serve in AmeriCorps in programs run by those at the summit were down 60%. At our own organization, the GO Foundation, we will start the school year with at least 25% of our tutor/mentor positions unfilled because we just can’t find enough recent college graduates willing to commit a year of service as an AmeriCorps member. That means hundreds of kids who need tutors to help make up for learning lost during the pandemic won’t get the help they need. If you’ve tried to recruit a new employee at the agency, hire a plumber or find a babysitter in the last year, the difficulty in finding good people to fill a position isn’t surprising to you. Employers added half a million jobs in July, double what analysts had been forecasting, crowding out efforts to recruit for AmeriCorps positions as we were closing out efforts to fill AmeriCorps positions before the start of the school year in August.
The reason for the shortfall in those willing to commit a year of service to AmeriCorps comes down to dollars and cents. One Glassdoor review posted last year by an AmeriCorps member serving in Charlestown, South Carolina captures it neatly: “The pay is so low that you really have to see if you can afford to live that way.” The living allowance paid to AmeriCorps members has hardly kept up with inflation; thanks to your advocacy and those of our allies on Capitol Hill it has grown significantly recently, but still falls short of what is needed for anything more than a subsistence level of existence. As you know, some programs augment that with their own funds; at the GO Foundation we provide free housing on top of the AmeriCorps living allowance, but we are still coming up short in finding the number of tutor/mentors that our students need. One of the results is that only well-off young people who come from families that are willing to subsidize them, can join AmeriCorps. National service then becomes a luxury good that is out of reach for working class or middle-class Americans who find the experience to be one that they just can’t afford.
A key factor affecting AmeriCorps recruitment is crushing student loan debt. Student loan indebtedness in the United States stands at $1.7 trillion, with the average grad holding over $30,000 in student loan obligations. If the President’s proposals are realized (and are not sidelined by lawsuits that are already being threatened) tremendous relief is on the way. What we are seeking is something more; something that provides a year of service through AmeriCorps with a competitive advantage compared with the many options available to a recent college graduate. We propose that the Segal award should be boosted to four times its current level to roughly $25,000 in the coming year. Doing so would provide debt-laden recent college graduates with a strong incentive to choose service when deciding what to do once they’ve earned their diploma. It would reinforce the social contract of serving one’s country in return for federal assistance with tuition assistance, a tradition dating back to the GI Bill.
Taking this step would represent the fulfillment of a promise that President Biden made during the 2020 campaign, when his campaign website said, “Biden will create a new, simple program which offers $10,000 of undergraduate or graduate student debt relief for every year of national or community service, up to five years. Individuals working in schools, government, and other non-profit settings will be automatically enrolled in this forgiveness program; up to five years of prior national or community service will also qualify.”
We applaud the courageous steps the President has taken to relieve student indebtedness, but we are seeking your support in the coming fiscal year’s budget for a measure of debt relief that is tied directly to national service through an increase in the Segal education award.