School, students must adjust for Obama’s education plan


Go ahead and quit that job you hate; President-elect Barack Obama is going to pay for your education.

According to Obama’s Web site, he plans to create an American Opportunity Tax Credit that will pay the first $4,000 of students’ tuition in exchange for the students’ contribution of 100 volunteer service hours to their community.

This action will not only change many students’ situations but the financial aid process as well.

If recording volunteering hours becomes a part of this process, the question becomes whether this new duty will be handed to the university or the students directly.

“We don’t really have a way to record [service hours] anywhere in our records system right now,” said Jim Owen, director of One Stop Student Services. “Students keep their own personal records [for service hours.]”

Student Affairs is also in the process of creating a co-curricular transcript, which would record what an academic transcript does not, such as involvement in student organizations.

There could be a way to record volunteer hours in this separate transcript through Student Affairs. Whichever way the hours are decided to be recorded, the university will try to do what’s best for students, Owen said.

“We [will] try to make those changes so there’s not a negative impact on students,” Owen said. “That’s what our goal is.”

While negative changes are avoided at UNF, 100 additional hours of service from thousands of students across the nation is sure to cause some major changes in organizations that accept volunteer workers.

“Yes, there’s a risk that those organizations will get people that just don’t want to do anything and are trying to get the tax cut,” said Lauriane Byll-Cataria, director of the UNF Volunteer Center.

The reasons people come to the Volunteer Center vary, but “very few people” seek volunteer experience just because they want to help, Byll-Cataria said.

Extra credit points and satisfying scholarship or Student Conduct requirements are the main reasons students volunteer, she said.

Adding a tax credit is just one incentive of many that attract people to volunteer, and will therefore change nothing, Byll-Cataria said.

“I can only see advantages to that policy,” she said. “People who truly like volunteering – [the tax credit] will not stop them and if someone really dislikes it, he [or she] will stop somewhere before attaining those 100 hours.”

But there are some that question the effectiveness of the proposed plan.

“The people who desperately need [the money] don’t have the time or the energy to do it because they’re working,” said James Cima, Senate president.

But according to Owen and Byll-Cataria, it is possible for a working student to add 100 hours a year to their schedule.

“When I was a student, the absolute best semester I had was [when] I was taking a course load of seventeen hours and working 35 hours a week at a restaurant,” Owen said.

A linkage between the Department of Education and the U.S. Treasury  is also going to come in the shape of eliminating the FAFSA form altogether and relying instead on a check box inside each year’s tax return, according to Obama’s Web site.

While Owen said the financial aid process looks at more than the information contained on tax forms, the move to eliminate the FAFSA “is a start.”

“Obama was speaking of this in his acceptance speech: It’s not going to be like flipping on a switch,” Owen said. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

E-mail Rebecca McKinnon at [email protected].