Paying for College: Public Service Opportunities
Sometimes you have to give a little to get a little. And if you’re the type of person who has no problem giving, a wide variety of opportunities to help fund your college education await. In exchange for a commitment to work in a public organization that provides in-need services to the community or the country, a number of organizations in the U.S. will offer financial aid to help cover the cost of your education. Some are industry-specific, such as health care and teaching, but many of these organizations and programs are open to students with a wide variety of interests.
Financial aid varies from organization to organization, both in terms of how much money is available as well as when the funding is doled out – some organizations only provide funding after the fact, while others are willing to front the cost in return for a commitment to serve after college. Both types of organizations have their benefits. If you’re not sure what you want to “do with your life” yet, spending a few years serving in one of these organizations can offer you the time to think it over while providing valuable, relevant, hands-on learning experiences that will look good on your resume later, no matter what degree you choose. If you’re sure of what you want to study though, there’s also benefits to the organizations who will help you pay for school now. You’ll get funding for the education you want, and after you’ve earned your degree, you can help someone else in turn by putting your new skills to work in an area of high-need.
Below are a number of organizations within the U.S. that offer student financial aid in exchange for a public service commitment.
AmeriCorps Education Award
AmeriCorps is a national network of programs whose members provide intensive service to meet community needs in education, the environment, public safety, health and homeland security. What you will do in AmeriCorps varies widely depending on the project or program. Some programs focus on organization and administration, and might include activities such as creating adult literacy campaigns or organizing job opportunities for disaster victims. Other programs are more physical and hands-on and might involve work such as repairing hiking trails at a national park or collecting and distributing food donations. With a wide variety of opportunities, you’re bound to find a program whose activities and mission line up with your personal interests.
Upon completion of a term of service, members are eligible for the Segal Education Award, which can be used to pay education expenses at eligible universities, or can be used to repay qualified student loans. Award amounts are pro-rated and are based on the number of hours served with AmeriCorps. Currently, members can earn a maximum of two full-time awards in their lifetime. Award amounts for the 2015-2016 school year were
- Full-Time (1,700 hours): $5,775
- 1 Year Half-time/Part-time (900 hours): $2,887.50
- Reduced Half-time/Part-time (675 hours): $2,220
- Quarter time (450 hours): $1,527.78
- Minimum time (300 hours): $1,222.22
Teach for America
Many college students are familiar with Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that recruits and trains individuals from a wide range of backgrounds to be teachers in low-income communities around the nation. During their time with the organization, Teach for America corps members are eligible to enroll as AmeriCorps members, and after each complete year in the program may be eligible for the same education awards available to AmeriCorps members.
Depending on how long you stay with the program, you may also be eligible for a variety of other programs that financially benefit teachers. Some of the national programs include the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (see below) and the Stafford Loan Forgiveness Program for Teachers, which offers loan forgiveness for those who teach full-time for five consecutive, complete academic years in certain elementary and secondary schools that serve low-income families.
The Peace Corps is an international service organization that sends Americans abroad to meet the needs of others around the world. Most Peace Corps volunteers work in Education or Health programs where they might work as teachers, develop libraries and technology resource centers, promote nutrition and hygiene programs, or work in HIV/AIDS education and prevention programs. Other program categories include Environment, Youth in Development, Agriculture and Community Economic Development.
Though not as inclusive as the AmeriCorps education benefits, the Peace Corps still offers some unique financial education benefits, including student loan relief. For example, volunteers with Perkins loans may qualify for partial loan cancellation. The Peace Corps also offers a variety of graduate school benefits, from scholarships and stipends to partial credit toward certain degrees. The flip side to the Peace Corps’ financial education benefits is that most of them only help relieve student loans, and the graduate school benefits can only be used at select schools and programs.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)
If your academic passions and professional goals line up well with public service, you may be able to qualify for the federal government’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Under the PSLF program, if you have Direct Loans from the government, work in a public service position and make 120 months of qualifying monthly payments, you will be eligible to have the remaining balance of your loans forgiven. The PSLF program is less about what you do and more about who you work for. For your employment to count as “qualifying”, you will need to work for a government organization at any level (local, state, federal and tribal) or a not-for-profit organization that is tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Other types of organizations may also count. For example, serving with the AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps counts as qualifying employment.
The obvious down side to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program? The wait. If you’ve already done the math, you’ve worked out that 120 months equates to 10 years of loan payments before forgiveness kicks in. While it may not sound like a solid plan – or immediate financial relief – there are a lot of benefits to the PSLF program. For starters, there are a lot of career opportunities in a wide variety of fields that will help you qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Whether your professional interests are in education, psychology, law or something else entirely, there’s likely a job in a public service office to match your interests. And while most people probably assume that working in public service isn’t a lucrative option, there are plenty of high-paying jobs in government service and non-profit organizations that will help you pay the bills – or should we say loans? – until forgiveness kicks in. And if you happen to choose a career that isn’t highly lucrative, no worries there either. Many loan repayment plans are income-based, meaning you won’t be stuck paying high monthly payments on a modest salary.
Whether you’re a former, future or current member of the military, serving in the United States’ military is a great way to help you pay for your education at any stage in your life. Under the GI Bill and its several expansions, veterans qualify for benefits such as tuition assistance, housing allowance and books stipends that can help them pay for education post-service. Veterans also qualify for an array of additional financial aid opportunities, including scholarships and loan cancellation.
Perhaps you’d rather earn your degree now and serve later? By joining the Reserves or Reserve Officer Training Corps, you can receive financial assistance to attend college full-time right now. And of course, active members of the military can also qualify for a number of educational benefits. (Learn more about educational benefits at Alliant for veterans and military members.)
National Health Services Corps
The National Health Service Corps is a division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services whose members are health professionals dedicated to providing primary health care services to underserved communities with limited access to care around the nation. In exchange for service, the National Health Service Corps offers financial support through loan repayment programs and scholarships.
The NHSC Loan Repayment program offers up to $50,000 in tax-free loan repayments in exchange for a two-year service commitment. Under the Students to Service Loan Repayment Program, students can earn up to $120,000 in their final year of school in exchange for a commitment to serve either 3 years full-time or 6 years part-time. Students who are studying one of the NHSC’s primary care disciplines can apply for scholarships that cover tuition, educational fees, other educational costs, and provides a living stipend in return for a commitment to work at least 2 years.
NHSC programs are open to students and professionals in the medical, dental and mental health/behavioral health fields. Career opportunities exist for physician assistants, nurse practitioners, psychologists, professional counselors, social workers, marriage and family therapists and physicians.
Public service not your pace? Explore other alternative resources for paying for college in the posts “How to Pay for College without Federal Loans” and “Paying for College: State and Federal Grants.”