How Financial Aid for National and Community Service Works

Many public and community service programs provide financial aid for volunteers who donate their time to help out doing work such as building homes in the area.
Many public and community service programs provide financial aid for volunteers who donate their time to help out doing work such as building homes in the area.
Paul Burns/Getty Images

During his inaugural address in 1961, President Kennedy gave a bold command that many Americans probably know by heart: "And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." This call to service led to a renewed sense of stewardship among Americans and, with that, the creation of the Peace Corps. Since then, the government has formed additional service programs, which benefit the community as well as the volunteers -- who may receive financial aid for their work.

During his 2008 presidential campaign, U.S. President Barack Obama gave a speech on community service, in which he pledged to expand programs and incentives for those interested in giving back: "Government depends not just on the consent of the governed, but on the service of citizens," he said [source: Davis].

After his election, President Obama made good on his promise by signing into law the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009, which created new initiatives and dramatically expanded existing programs. The bill traveled through Congress at an uncharacteristic speed, spending only 22 days going back and forth between the House and Senate before getting to the President's desk.

Community service in the United States has seen a huge surge in interest. In 2009, about 1.5 million more people volunteered their time than in 2008 [source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics]. While volunteering often gives people a sense of pride in giving back to their community, other -- more tangible -- benefits can include help with educational or living expenses. In this article, we'll examine some of the lesser-known governmental programs that provide financial aid for community service. Whether you're in the midst of adolescence or cashing your Social Security checks, you'll learn how to give back and earn a little financial help in return.

Financial Aid Opportunities for College Students

If you're a college student, now might a great time to start thinking about devoting some time to giving back. Why? First, your financial obligations may be less daunting than the average two-kids-and-a-mortgage adult's. Second, you're probably used to working hard, long hours for not a lot of pay. And finally, the government has program that will help you out.

One of the most popular programs among college students and graduates is AmeriCorps. Full-time participants who complete their program earn an education award, which can go toward paying for college, graduate school or qualified student loans. If you serve part-time, you'll receive a partial education award. Depending on the program in which you enroll, you might also receive a modest stipend for living expenses while you serve. You can read more about this in How Financial Aid for AmeriCorps Works.

If you're about to graduate, you may consider going into a career in the public service -- you'll be doing beneficial work, and the government may help you out with your student loans. For example, the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 includes a provision for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. The definition of "public service" is fairly broad: You can work in government, law enforcement or the non-profit sector to be eligible. Participants can have the remaining balance on their school loans forgiven after 10 years of full-time employment -- at least 30 hours a week -- in the public service. What's more, the forgiveness includes both your principal and interest -- and it won't be taxed.

However, there are a few restrictions to keep in mind, First of all, only federal Direct Loans are applicable. Your loan will be forgiven after you've made 120 payments on it (10 years' worth), but these payments must have begun on or after Oct. 1, 2007. You have to be employed in the public service job while you make these 120 payments, and you must be employed in the public service job when the Secretary of Education forgives the loan -- no bailing out early. You can learn more about this program at the U.S. Department of Education's Web site [source: StudentAid].

College students aren't the only people who can make a positive impact on their communities and get a little back from the government in the process. Read on to find out how older people can also benefit from the American call to service.

Financial Aid Opportunities for Senior Citizens

Several federal programs offer seniors citizens financial aid -- such as Foster Grandparent, in which volunteers work with schools to help out and tutor students.
Several federal programs offer seniors citizens financial aid -- such as Foster Grandparent, in which volunteers work with schools to help out and tutor students.
Andersen Ross/Getty Images

The Senior Corps is the older generation's version of AmeriCorps. This program consists of three core branches: Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions and RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program).

As a Foster Grandparent, you can spend up to 40 hours a week helping at schools and a variety of different local organizations that serve children. Volunteers may be eligible to earn a tax-free hourly stipend and a travel reimbursement, depending on income. Senior Companions, who assist adults who need a little help living independently, can also earn an income-dependent, tax-free stipend and travel reimbursement. RSVP, which is a kind of clearinghouse for community service opportunities, does not offer financial aid directly, but the local sponsoring organization might be able to reimburse you for any costs incurred during participation, such as travel.

You must be at least 55 years old to enroll in any of these programs [source: SeniorCorps]. To get involved, you can visit the Corporation for National Service Web site and search for opportunities in your region.

In addition to these current programs, the Serve America Act of 2009 authorized the creation and funding of a new program called Silver Scholars, which would give education awards of $1,000 to individuals age 55 and older who perform 350 hours of service. Recipients would be able to transfer the money to children or grandchildren [source: Scott].

If you're not in college or part of the working world yet, that doesn't mean you can't benefit from these opportunities. Read on to find out what kind of financial aid is available for you.

Financial Aid Opportunities for Middle and High School Students

If you're a middle or high school student looking for a little extra financial help as you prepare for college, consider giving up a few of your summer days to help out your community.

As of 2010, the Learn and Serve America division of the Corporation of National and Community Service has a new program called Summer of Service, which is designed for students who haven't reached college age yet. However, it has been in the making for several years. Innovations in Civic Participation, an organization devoted to expanding and enhancing youth service opportunities, first proposed and fought for a national Summer of Service program for teenagers. The organization worked with Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. Rosa DeLauro to draft the Summer of Service Act of 2007, but it wasn't passed. Two years later, legislators reintroduced the program, and it became part of the Serve America Act of 2009 [source: ICICP].

By enrolling in a program, students who complete 100 hours of service may be eligible for $500 or $750 education awards for their work, depending on need [source: Learn and Serve America]. The funds are designated for middle- and high-schoolers, but preference is given to programs that enroll rising sixth- through ninth-graders. You can use these awards later on to cover higher education expenses or to pay down your student loans. Unfortunately, you may receive Summer of Service awards only twice, and you must use it within 10 years of receiving it. But your participation in this program won't affect your eligibility for AmeriCorps awards once you're older, if you choose to pursue that route [source: NASFAA].

If you're interested in checking out Summer of Service opportunities in your neighborhood, head to the Corporation for National and Community Service's Web site [source: Corporation for National and Community Service].

Read on to get even more information on financial aid opportunities for those who do national and community service.

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Sources

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