National Service Plan
In the U.S., about 43 million borrowers collectively owe $1.6 trillion in student loan debt. Higher education costs have increased eight times faster than wages, making it impossible for many young Americans to get the education they need to succeed without taking on massive high-interest loans.
In Kentucky, 16 percent of student loan holders are in default — 3 percent higher than the national average.
Some politicians are touting plans for free college, but we need practical solutions for college debt. A more equitable exchange would be a contract: debt-free higher education in exchange for paid service back to our communities. Participants would be rewarded with an educational benefit equal to four years of average in-state tuition where their college is located.
A national service program like this would give young Americans real-world learning opportunities while using their hard-earned skills to serve their country and meet some of America’s most pressing needs. In order to do this, I agree with other veterans and public policy advisors that Congress needs to increase national service opportunities from around 66,000 a year to at least 200,000 a year.
Less than 1 percent of Americans serve in the military, AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps combined. This is due in part to lack of opportunity, not lack of interest. In 2012, AmeriCorps had to turn down almost 80 percent of the nearly 600,000 applicants that wanted to serve.
Our country already provides assistance paying for education and vocational training in exchange for service on a smaller scale through G.I. Bill benefits for military members. The G.I. Bill reshaped our middle class after World War II, expanding opportunities for average citizens to grow wealth. Extending some of those benefits to people who choose to serve their country in other ways can help strengthen our middle-class today.
There are currently five bipartisan bills sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk, including the Protect the G.I. Bill Act, that could provide and protect educational opportunities for those that served their nation. When I am in the Senate, I will push for those bills to be considered.
Not everyone can or should serve in the military, but all Americans should be afforded opportunities to give back to their country — opportunities like working in underserved areas in high-demand sectors such as health care or education. In return, young Americans could be compensated through benefits like those I received for my service in uniform.
We need to return to a place where we view citizenship as a two-way street, a pact between government, communities and individuals. A national service program is an investment in our youth, our economy and our country as a whole.