University may reward for public service jobs

University officials are in the initial stages of developing a program to help students who enter jobs in public service pay off debt accrued while in college.

The public service initiative is one of many service-related ideas that University President Steven Knapp charged a team of faculty and students to create.

“The initiative is certainly representative of an out-of-the-box big idea,” said Robert Chernak, senior vice president for Student and Academic Support Services. “The program has much merit and is quite congruent with many GW students’ ambitions and economic situations, as well as opportunity provided by our unique D.C. location.”

Students who are interested in public service careers are often forced to take higher-paying jobs because of debts they have accumulated over the course of their college career that a public service salary will not substantiate, said Michael Akin, director of government, international and community relations.

“Because of this debt burden, there is a fear in higher education that we are forcing students to take a career path that they don’t want to take,” Akin said. “As a University, we take public service seriously enough that this is where we want to divert some of our priorities.”

There are already similar programs in place at the Law School and Graduate School of Political Management.

At GSPM, alumnus Bob O’Dwyer and his wife Marianna endowed a debt relief program, said Joe Bondi, GSPM director of development.

“It’s an endowment, which means it lasts forever, and we spend a portion of the interest earned on it every year,” Bondi said. “It is not fully funded so it has not begun to make payments for the School to use, yet. I expect that to happen at some point in 2009.”

When it is funded, the O’Dwyer Fund for Student Loan Forgiveness will make grants to recent GSPM graduates who pursue jobs in government or non-profit advocacy. Like the public service initiative, the O’Dwyer Fund was motivated by the concern that students were taking higher paying jobs to pay off their student loans, when their real interest was working in the public sector, Bondi said.

“We hope that the O’Dwyer Fund will encourage our students that really want to work in the public interest to take those jobs knowing that we can help a little bit with their student loans,” Bondi said.

The University has yet to indicate where funds for the new public service initiative would come from in order to build an endowment large enough to meet its goals.

“Naturally, its launch is quite dependent on successful philanthropy,” Chernak said. “Nevertheless, the basis of the program conceivably may be of significant interest to foundations and individuals who have the capacity for large gifts.”

Akin said this initiative is “very sellable to potential donors.” The idea was narrowed down from a brainstorming list of more than 40 service-related ideas, Akin said.

The specifics of the initiative are yet to be determined, since it is one of the long-term projects “that would likely require three to five years and significant external funding to implement,” he said.

Graduates would most likely have to apply to a designated committee for the funding and that group would decide which candidates qualify for the money, Akin said. He added that criteria would have to be established to properly identify public service careers and which students are eligible to receive funding. n

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