American Opportunity Tax Credit and Community Service

President Obama has been touting a new proposal to trade a tuition tax credit for community service. The timing couldn’t be better. The economic downturn will adversely effect American’s opportunity for higher education. Students and parents will be struggling to make tuition payments, especially as public higher education institutions find themseves with significant funding cuts.

On the other side of the university green, community hospitals, non-profits, and K-12 schools are just as effected. Lack of funding is stalling projects and stretching resources. There is a resource these agencies and organizations has relied on for years to bring poorly funded projects to life: volunteers.

Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-PA) has introduced one of the best ideas I’ve seen yet for addressing tuition and service: H.R. 106: The American Opportunities Tax Credit. The idea is simple: a $4000 tuition tax credit in exchange for 100 hours of community service. The language of the bill with regards to implentation is vague. How it works on the tax credit side is left to the Secretary of the Treasury. How the colleges and universities insure the 100 hours of community service is left to the Secretary of Education. To be honest, even I’m reluctant to say I understand the implication of this being a tax credit, but if it means that $4000 comes back to me somehow, I’ll be happy.

At the University of OKlahoma, we’ve been knee deep in an large community engagement initiative. President and former Senator David Boren has been pushing student service initiatives since taking office. In 2007 he saw an opportunity to institutionalize the effort. The K20 Center has become increasingly successful at pulling off partnership initatives, which is just what a university wide service initative needed. It couldn’t just be another mandate from the president’s office. It needed to be grassroots with local leadership taking charge. He took the director of the K20 Center, Mary John O’Hair, and promoted her to Vice Provost for School and Community Partnerships. This provided the necessary administrative power to structure partnerships within the university.

Two immediate effects came from this: formation of the Community Engagement Committee, and a university-wide audit of community engagement activities. The audit and committee demonstrated the need to develop a formalized student tracking system that would inform the committee and provide service transcripts to students. OU Engage was born.

It has been my responsibility to bring OU Engage to life. I’ll go into the details of the tracking system in another post. Here I want to talk about my own opportunity to show support for the link between community service and tuition credits.

Two weeks ago I contacted Congressman Fattah’s inquiring about the bill. My inquiry was simple… how did they see the Secretary of Education tracking those community hours? The conversation turned to what the University of Oklahoma was doing above and beyond the tracking of hours. And that prompted an invitation to Washington D.C. by Fattah. Four days later I was on a plane to sit in on a congressional panel. My presentation on the panel is available on Slideshare and Google Docs.

After the presentation, I was fortunate to be able to visit with Senator Wofford (D-PA, retired), Congressman Dan Boren (D-OK), and Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK). I expressed my interest in the Act and suggested each consider suporting it.

There is one other important point about the bill. Funding for the American Opportunity Tax Credit is layed out in the Stimulus package under the same name. It was in HR 1 when it left the House. Now the Senate has it. I’m keeping my fingers crossed it stays. I’ve already written to Oklahoma Senator Coburn and Senator Inhofe. If I were to ask my blog readers anything, I’d ask then to do the same.

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