NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
It didn't take much to inspire America's youth following the events of Sept. 11. But the call for national community service, coupled with some sizable college tuition breaks, has had a far greater impact than anyone ever predicted.
Applications at AmeriCorps, in fact, a year-long national service program, rocketed 50 percent following President Bush's State of the Union address early this year, in which he asked young Americans to volunteer two years to their communities. Of the 3,230 who applied online in the two months following the speech, two-thirds were between the ages of 18 and 24.
Members of AmeriCorps mentor at-risk youth, build affordable housing, provide health screenings and help non-profit organizations nationwide.
Some of its programs are more popular than others. Teach for America, for example, which places fresh college grads as teachers in at-risk schools, has seen its application numbers grow to 14,000 this year, far outstripping its previous record last year of 5,000.
"We think many college students and recent grads are changing their plans to focus on giving back to their communities instead of jumping into careers, because of Sept. 11 and the State of the Union address," said Sandy Scott, press secretary at the Corporation for National Service.
Beyond the benefits of serving a community in need, however, AmeriCorps members walk away with something more tangible. Each member receives a $4,725 scholarship award after a year of service, and it can be used to pay tuition or repay student loans. They can earn up to two awards, meaning the program offers them an opportunity to put a dent of nearly $10,000 in their tuition bill.
AmeriCorps is the only U.S. service program of its kind, enrolling 50,000 people a year. Its various programs have different requirements and deadlines. Some, like Teach for America, run on the school calendar and require a bachelor's degree. Others simply require applicants be U.S. citizens over 17.
The Peace Corps, which takes volunteers to serve abroad for 2 years, also cited a record-setting spike in applications following the State of the Union address. 24 hours after President Bush's speech, web traffic had tripled and more than 500 candidates had applied online.
Snagging a scholarship
Now, about that education award: when AmeriCorps members complete one full-time term of service -- that's at least 1,700 hours completed in a year or less -- the scholarship is theirs. If their term of service is shorter, some members may be eligible to receive a partial award.
AmeriCorps modeled its award on the government's GI Bill, hoping to encourage its members to pursue higher education, Scott said.
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It's become an incentive to say the least, considering college tuition bills burden a growing percentage of students with heavy debt. Some 64 percent of the college class of 2000 graduated with loans to pay, and the average student loan debt has nearly doubled over the past 8 years to $16,928, according to a March report from the State Public Interest Research Group's Higher Education Project.
"I think a lot of college students leave school with huge debts these days, and AmeriCorps provides some relief from that debt burden," said Chris Quaka, 24, an AmeriCorps member currently serving in Washington, D.C. with the National Civilian Community Corps. Quaka considers the education award "a huge bonus," and will use it to repay loans he took out to pay for college.
While you serve, you may also apply for forbearance on your student loans. That means you don't make payments on your loans during service. Interest continues to accumulate, but if you qualified for forbearance and completed your term of service, AmeriCorps pays some or all of the interest that accrued on your loans during that time.
"It takes 10 months in AmeriCorps to earn $4,725," said Quaka. "Unless your job is just phenomenal, I can't think of many ways young people could come up with that amount after just 10 months in the workforce."
Okay, one disadvantage: your education award is taxable in the year it's used. But you may be able to take advantage of the Hope Scholarship or Lifetime Learning Credits when you use the award, providing significant tax relief, according to Scott. For more information on these tax breaks, click here.
Above and beyond
AmeriCorps members may be able to cut higher education bills even further, however. Colleges like the University of Vermont and Northeastern University in Boston, Mass., offer course credit or scholarships for participation in the program. Many graduate schools, including Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass., George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., and Clark University, in Worcester, Mass., will do the same.
For a full listing of schools that offer scholarships and incentives to AmeriCorps alums, click here.
Irma Borrero, 29, is among those who have been able to cash in on such benefits. Borrero, who joined the program in Fort Meyers, Fla. at the beginning of this school year, plans to use her education award to defray the cost of graduate school next fall. She will attend the School of International Training (SIT) in Vermont for a degree in intercultural relations, where she will receive another $8,000 public service scholarship from SIT for her time spent with AmeriCorps.
"The combination of the AmeriCorps education award and the additional $8,000 scholarship has let me cut a year's tuition at graduate school in half," Borrero said. "And I think more schools are starting to offer those financial incentives."
She's right. According to AmeriCorps Alums, a non-profit that encourages AmeriCorps members to pursue higher education and continue their community service, more and more schools are making offers students can't refuse.
The non-profit has convinced about 35 schools to offer incentives to AmeriCorps members, whether it's by matching the education award, offering a scholarship or granting course credit for experiential learning to AmeriCorps alums. They hope to bring that number to 50 by June.
"We've had great success," said Michael Meneer, president of AmeriCorps Alums. "But the sell is not hard -- college and university presidents want to recruit problem-solvers and leaders for their student bodies. AmeriCorps alums get schools involved in the communities around them, and help them move away from any perceptions of an ivory tower."