MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Two young men go to Mississippi to teach school under the Teach for America Program. A decade or so later, prompted by the government's faulty response to Hurricane Katrina, they hatched a new idea: what if we created a public service academy? Four years of free college education with a requirement of five years of government service afterward.

Well, their idea now has the support of presidential candidate and New York Senator Hillary Clinton and there are others who have sponsored legislation that would create that academy for some 5,000 students. The idea is the brainchild of Chris Myers Asch and Shawn Raymond.

Mr. SHAWN RAYMOND (Co-Founder, U.S. Public Service Academy): We've tried to model this idea on making it into civilian West Point. Students would have to get a congressional nomination just like you would for the five other service academies. And then they'd go through a very intense four-year program, a rigorous liberal arts education and then they'd be doing a significant leadership-based public service projects during those four years. And then the payback to the American people would be five years of public service. So, for example, classroom without teachers, communities without police officers, cities without proper social workers.

BLOCK: There are, of course, a lot of colleges that offer programs in all sorts of public service. Why do you think we really need a service academy? Shawn Raymond?

Mr. RAYMOND: There are indeed are a lot of service-oriented schools. Many of which are focused at the graduate level and what we're talking about is getting kids right out of high school to go through the same intense experience that you get at the five military service academies. And I think that what we're trying to create is a very unique culture of service. Something that binds all students at this academy in the same way that it occurs at Annapolis or the Air Force Academy or the other service academies.

BLOCK: Chris Myers Asch?

Mr. CHRIS MYERS ASCH (Co-Founder, U.S. Public Service Academy): Absolutely, to second what Shawn is saying. The bonds that you can create on an independent campus like a West Point or on Annapolis are different from anything that you could do on a traditional college.

BLOCK: You know, if you think about trying to inspire young people to turn to public service, regardless of whether you're offering them a free education, in the end, those public service jobs are still going to pay less than most jobs in the private sector. So that's the reality they're going to be looking at, no?

Mr. RAYMOND: Well, and that's part of the reason why those - the current problems that you face with college debt really price out so many kids who do want to serve from actually doing it.

Mr. ASCH: So many young people are looking for ways to give meaning to their lives and to make a difference in the world. And fewer and fewer of them see public service as the way to do it. Working in the public sector they don't think makes a difference, and we want to change that. We want to change the way young Americans perceive and prepare for and pursue public service.

Yes, you can go and you can work 70 hours a week, and you can figure out ways to make your firm, you know, an extra dollar, or you could go into public service and really make a difference. And we think that more and more young people want that difference.

BLOCK: You've heard the criticism. I know that you don't need to spend hundreds of million dollars creating a new academy, you could offer scholarships to the existing program as incentives and maybe require public service in exchange will be a lot cheaper.

Mr. ASCH: Well, I think that ignores a few things. You know, scholarship program is great. We certainly are not opposed to scholarship programs that would attract more people into public service. But it would sort of be like creating the ROTC program without the West Point to go along with it.

Mr. RAYMOND: And I think the other point that's important to make is that existing institutions that do offer scholarships still have their own sets of priorities and procedures. And the scholarship money really would go to the benefit of the individual student. But that scholarship money, if it is an institution-wide, doesn't have the effect of changing the overall culture. I mean, in many ways, Chris and I view this academy as being our generation's Peace Corps, our generation's response to 9/11 and Katrina, to do something very bold and dramatic.

BLOCK: I mentioned that Senator Hillary Clinton has endorsed your proposal, has a bill that would create this public service academy. Were you surprised that this idea has gotten some traction and has popped up now in the presidential campaign?

Mr. ASCH: We are pleasantly surprised, I think, with how quickly things have picked up. We've been working with her, we've been working with senators and representatives from both sides of the aisle, and certainly Arlen Specter as well, took a lot of leadership. He sat down with Shawn and me to discuss this project, and came to realize that this is something that isn't Democratic, it isn't Republican, it's American.

BLOCK: And Shawn Raymond, it would need a few hundred millions dollars of congressional funding to get off the ground. Do you really think that's going to happen?

Mr. RAYMOND: Absolutely, I do. I think that it's worse that - I mean, the question is not just the actual dollars, and we're talking about a public-private partnership, which - we're talking about $160 million per year that the government would be committing to the academy, and that private funds would raise the remaining 40 million. You know, I just think that the political will is there, if it's a good-enough idea to be the next great American idea, you need to be able to put the resources behind it.

BLOCK: Well, Shawn Raymond and Chris Myers Asch, thanks for being with us.

Mr. RAYMOND: Thank you very much.

Mr. ASCH: We appreciate it.

BLOCK: Shawn Raymond, speaking with us from KKXK in Montrose, Colorado, and Chris Myers Asch with us from member station WVXU in Cincinnati.

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