AmeriCorps, in fact, was created by the Clinton administration and expanded dramatically under Bush 43. Given the fact that it is a federal program, it is of course complicated: It is part of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which also oversees related programs that you probably haven't heard of, like the Senior Corps and Learn and Serve America. AmeriCorps itself has three divisions, which incorporate things like the Vista program, which is the domestic version of the Peace Corps, and has been around since 1965.
Although experience can widely vary, most members of AmeriCorps earn a stipend of about $5,000 a year which can be used to offset existing student loans, certain health benefits and living expenses while they're enrolled in the program. While the program has cachet and is good as far as it goes, $5,000 a year for college in the U.S. doesn't go very far.
[Related Article: The Other Student Loan Slow Jam: Is It Time for a National Service Corps?]
The time has come for the re-creation of AmeriCorps, and the rethinking of the government role in borrowing for education. Specifically, the country needs to address three major problems:
While it's certainly true that the 21st-century demands education beyond high school level, the notion that everyone should get some kind of a liberal arts education, however much it appeals to our nobler instincts, is ultimately counterproductive. Thus new or revamped programs need to create incentives so that people who should be getting skills-based vocational training do not instead study English.
Part of the reason for the inflation of tuition is the easy availability of borrowed money, just as a flood of mortgage money certainly contributed to the housing bubble. The existing skein of federally-backed loans and grants under Title IV of the Higher Education Act must be streamlined, and real standards for both borrowers and eligible institutions must be developed. There have been some steps in this direction recently, at least in terms of new regulations applying to for-profit schools, but they do not go far enough.
We need to reorganize all of the efforts combined within the Corporation for National and Community Service, so that the culture of borrowing tuition money is replaced with the idea of working for it. Obviously, there is no practicable way of allowing every student to work for the government in order to pay for tuition, but the creation of a National Service Corps will have a meaningful impact on the problem, in connection with the other reforms outlined above.
There are many questions that need answering. Should the program pay for college entirely? Or, should there be a cap of, say, $15,000, above which students can find loans if they choose to attend a more expensive college?
Should all volunteers join the National Service Corps at age 18, right after high school? Or should they be allowed to choose whether to participate during college or even after college, depending on their financial and educational needs?
Should all National Service Corps volunteers serve two years? Or should civilian volunteers serve for three years while military volunteers—who put their lives on the line—serve only two?