By Mikhail Zinshteyn, CalMatters
A new California program to financially reward college students for volunteering has garnered national attention — but less than half of its budget is spent on student financial aid.
The California Volunteers College Corps program, backed by $159 million in mostly state money, promises to award up to $10,000 to 6,668 low-income students who volunteer in K-12 education, on climate action or to reduce food insecurity.
However, this only represents $66.7 million for students. So where does the remaining $92 million go?
These are mostly hiring and administration costs despite no guarantee that the program will continue beyond 2024. Some experts believe the distribution of funds makes sense as students could benefit from training and it is possible that the program will obtain additional funding in the future. Other experts believe the money should go directly to students, so fewer of them will have to work on top of their other responsibilities.
“I think it’s a classic question of whether it’s better to give someone a fish or teach them how to fish,” said Nora Silver, a professor who studies nonprofits at the business school. from UC Berkeley and ran a volunteer program herself.
For her, the program does both: it gives money directly to students and includes many programs to train students and connect what they have learned as volunteers to the job market.
Nor does she find that the total costs of the program are out of whack. Budget details to grow the network of colleges and nonprofits — including career, academic and financial aid counseling for student volunteers — are “necessary to deliver a program that works well,” Silver said. .
The flip side of this argument is to simply give the fish – or the money – directly to the students. That’s what Robert Shireman would have preferred. He is Director of Higher Education at the nonprofit Century Foundation and served in a senior position overseeing higher education policy in the Obama administration.
“I would have put the money directly into need-based financial aid and not into a new temporary services program,” said Shireman, who noted that many low-income students were already working to pay for education.
The program is expected to run for two years, although Governor Gavin Newsom suggested at a Jan. 18 press event that he would ask the Legislature to expand the program “if it works.” Part of the money will go to an external evaluation of the program.
Silver thinks the goal is expansion. The program reminds him of the beginnings of AmeriCorps, the federal voluntary service established in the 1990s. she declared.
Where does most of the money go?
Almost all of that $92 million that doesn’t go directly to students is for program costs, according to a budget CalMatters received from California Volunteers, the state office that runs the program. Forty-five colleges and universities – almost all public – will share the money.
Of this amount, $77 million is for a range of operational work to develop the volunteer program. This includes money for the colleges whose students will be in this program to expand their local programs and partner with the nonprofits where the students will work. Costs include:
- recruit consultants and staff, acquire additional offices and computer equipment;
- recruit actual student volunteers and fund non-profit organizations where they will do their volunteer work;
- providing students with career and academic advice and training events;
- and an external evaluator, to be hired at a later date, to evaluate the volunteer program.
An additional $15 million is earmarked for California Volunteers personnel.
Not only is the program a way for students to give back to their community, but it’s also an opportunity that allows students to “learn a career and earn money while learning that career,” said the Chancellor of California Community Colleges, Eloy Ortiz Oakley.
But a state program to connect students to careers already exists. Last year’s state budget injected $200 million into a new work-study program for students, and another $300 million is planned this year.
How will students get the money – and when?
Participating students will begin volunteering throughout the program in fall 2022. After completing 450 hours during the academic year, each will receive $10,000.
The money is split into two buckets – $7,000 paid regularly and a final lump sum of $3,000 after one year of service. As students complete their hours, they will be paid as if they were campus employees through their college or university’s payroll system. Even if students do not volunteer 450 hours, they will receive a prorated amount of the initial $7,000. But to receive the final $3,000, students will need to complete the full 450 hours of service.
Unlike the federal AmeriCorps, undocumented students can participate in the California volunteer program. State officials want 20% of volunteers to be undocumented students who receive state financial aid. They are eligible for the same $10,000 available to other students, but their pot will come solely from state dollars, while federal funds will cover a portion of the $3,000 other students will receive.
But all that extra money can create headaches for some volunteers. $7,000 volunteers work to count as income, which can “impact a student’s financial aid,” reads a program FAQ. Campuses are urged to work with their financial aid offices to “mitigate any impact” for students. Plus, the $7,000 is taxable income, which means taxes will be deducted from each paycheck.
Only full-time students will be eligible for the service program.
The College Corps State Volunteer Program builds on a smaller effort California launched in 2020, about six months after the COVID-19 pandemic began. Although the small effort aimed to attract 250 students, 199 eventually participated, according to performance review data California Volunteers spokesperson Julie Goggins shared with CalMatters. And some — 7% — did not complete their full hours of service and therefore did not receive the full amount to which they were entitled. Most students – 90% – also learned professional development skills, according to performance reviews. Some pilot cycle colleges also participate in College Corps.
A bigger picture
The volunteer program’s budget makes sense, but the devil is in the details, said Alexandra Graddy-Reed, a professor who studies nonprofits at the University of Southern California. She likes that students who volunteer receive different layers of guidance. It’s another way for colleges and the state to expose these low-income students to opportunities that wealthier students often already receive through family connections, Graddy-Reed said.
All of these services require more staff and hiring people is expensive, which explains the costs of the program, she said. The mix of volunteering and various councils “sounds good to me” as a way to spend taxpayers’ money, Graddy-Reed added. Still, she will want to see the specific hiring decisions colleges will make locally and whether the bulk of operational funding will go to the College Corps or general campus operations.
Campus-level contract amounts won’t be available until the summer, according to Goggins.
Some campuses have started advertising their programs. UC Davis and three other Sacramento-area colleges will share up to $16 million for approximately 1,000 student volunteers. Fresno State and Fresno City College will enroll approximately 120 students over two years.
Shireman, who preferred that the money go directly to some of the poorer students. pointed out that Newsom had vetoed a bill last year that would have given cash rewards or fully covered tuition to more than 100,000 additional students.
Newsom and lawmakers have greatly expanded the state’s financial aid program in other ways that provide student aid directly, such as cash and grants to fully cover tuition. But these are all ongoing programs, while the money for the volunteer program is only for two years. From an advertising perspective, creating a temporary program, such as College Corps, is probably better than briefly expanding access to ongoing grants only to have them disappear soon after, Shireman reflected.