updated 4/12/2004 2:47:34 PM ET 2004-04-12T18:47:34

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry on Monday renewed his call for a comprehensive commitment to national service by Americans of all ages, telling college students that “change starts with you” as he proposed to tie aid for college tuition to national service.

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“We cannot and we will not pass America’s problems on to your generation. But the fact is, this election is not just about what we’re going to do, it’s about what you’re going to do,” Kerry said in remarks prepared for an appearance at the University of New Hampshire.

“With college tuition rising higher this year than ever before, it’s time to make four years of college affordable and available to every single young American,” Kerry said. “We’ll help you pay for school, and we’ll help even more if you’re willing to serve your country. And together, we’ll make 2004 the last year that debt and dollar signs come before degrees and dreams for the future.”

While Kerry pledged to “offer a lot to young people,” his prepared remarks did not specify the relationship between service and tuition.

'Give something back'
“But like no president since John F. Kennedy, I’m going to ask young people to give something back. I’m going to ask you to serve your country to go out into your communities and teach children, be mentors, build homes and protect America,” he said.

As it opened a concerted appeal to younger voters, the Kerry campaign presented statistics it called a “misery index” to show the soaring costs of a college education amid lagging incomes. Other stops on its college tour this week are the University of Rhode Island, the City College of New York and the University of Pittsburgh.

Although Kerry is focusing on the costs of college, his campaign is broadening its economic criticism of President Bush by suggesting that working families have been hammered by stagnant incomes at a time college and health insurance costs have soared.

The study by his campaign said tuition costs at public colleges and universities have soared by 13 percent in the last three years, “the largest increase on record” and reflecting the budget pressures facing cash-strapped states. Private-college costs have grown by 5 percent over the same stretch, it said.

Kerry: It's more than job losses
Much of the Democrats’ criticism of Bush is focused on job losses during his tenure, but Kerry’s study argued that far broader and more ominous economic trends are at work.

“Less noted, but perhaps even more important,” the study said, “is the fact that middle-class families are increasingly being squeezed by the rising cost of health care, college tuition and gasoline at the same time that wages and incomes are stagnating and personal bankruptcies are at record levels.”

Video: Kerry’s campaign planned to release the report formally on Monday at coordinated events in more than a dozen electorally competitive states. The document discusses the economic status of all 50 states.

Between 2000 and 2003, the study says, inflation-adjusted figures show wages dropped 0.2 percent while public-college tuition jumped 13 percent, health insurance premiums grew 11 percent and gasoline prices rose 15 percent.

Kerry’s campaign argues that those increased burdens far outstripped any financial gain from a series of Bush-sponsored tax cuts, which the administration contends put more money in the pockets of working families.

'The real economy'
“This is an index about how the real economy is affecting real working families,” said Gene B. Sperling, a Kerry adviser who was a top economic aide to President Clinton.

Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt dismissed the index as a political stunt. “John Kerry has made a calculation that if he talks down the economy, it will benefit him politically,” he said.

Schmidt also said the economy is growing “at its fastest rate in 20 years,” and pointed to a Labor Department report that some 308,000 new jobs were created last month. Nearly 2 million jobs have been lost during Bush’s tenure.

Campaign officials said they prepared the study with economic data from the Census Bureau, the College Board, the federal agency that runs the Medicaid and Medicare health programs and other government agencies, independent sources and advocacy groups.

'Middle-Class Misery Index'
The report examined median family incomes, college tuition, health insurance costs, gasoline prices, personal bankruptcies, home ownership rates and private-sector job growth. It said six of the seven statistics worsened during Bush’s term; only home ownership rates improved.

Kerry’s study said drivers paid an additional $24 billion for gasoline this year, averaging $300 per family.

The campaign calculated the “Middle Class Misery Index” of Bush’s and previous administrations and found a 13-point dip, from 112 to 99, between 2000 and 2003. A higher score means families are better off.

The report listed a drop of five points during President Reagan’s two terms, a decline of 12 points during the presidency of Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, and a 23-point improvement under Clinton.

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