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A legion of student volunteers

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March 27, 2008

AS TUITION rates have risen faster than inflation, American college students have been burdened with huge debts. Now presidential candidate Barack Obama has proposed to ease the strain with a $4,000 tax credit for students willing to volunteer 100 hours a year. He would buttress the familiar presidential call to action with two key catalysts of service other initiatives have lacked: a financial incentive and an infrastructure to support volunteerism.

Students could apply for the renewable credit on April's tax forms in time for September's tuition bill, and it would be disbursed directly to their colleges. Other facets of Obama's $3.5 billion effort, including a Craigslist-style service clearinghouse, would match opportunities to the volunteers. The plan also features a social investment fund to attract private donations.

For students hampered by a lack of means, the tax credit would ease the tuition load significantly. Plus, surveys show that student-volunteers earn better grades and are more likely to register to vote after volunteering, according to Jumpstart, a national nonprofit that puts tutors in early education classrooms.

Nonprofit organizations seeking to recruit help tend to target state and community college students, who are more likely to be eligible for work-study and to be studying education or nursing - programs that produce more than their share of volunteers. These students would benefit most from the tax credit, which covers two-thirds of the average state college's tuition.

The demand for volunteers is great. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay estimates 30,000 children are unmatched in Greater Boston, for example, and a legion of collegiate do-gooders would be a boon for them - and would help salve town-gown tensions, as well.

But the tax credit must not become a handout. Do-nothing jobs would invite scandal, and cheat volunteers of rewarding experiences. Obama's program would task colleges' work-study offices with certifying participation, so his administration would need to provide technical support to help catalogue an influx of volunteers.

Nonprofits would have to grow to scale to train and position students where they can do the most good. There will be growing pains, but the challenge for nonprofits isn't a lack of needs; it's figuring out how to expand to address all the problems crying out for help. By putting college students to work as mentors, tutors, and volunteers, that challenge can be met.

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