U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah yesterday touted a bill that would give all college students who agree to perform 100 hours of public service a $4,000 refundable tax credit.

Speaking to a roomful of college and university presidents from around the region, Fattah (D., Pa.) said that when Congress convenes next month, he will introduce the American Opportunity Tax Credit Act, a bill Fattah says reflects President-elect Barack Obama's commitment to higher education and a call for more public service.

All students could qualify for the credit, which would be available at the time tuition is due, Fattah said. A five-year cap on undergraduate education will likely be written in, he said, and graduate students would probably be eligible for two years of credit. The planned credit would not replace the existing Pell Grant for needy students, but supplement it.

The news went over well with the dozen presidents who gathered for a quarterly meeting hosted by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. The Presidents' Council includes more than 50 leaders from colleges and universities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Students could perform community service in a variety of settings - after-school programs, hospitals, senior citizen centers, even on college campuses, Fattah said.

Fattah said he was hopeful the bill would be approved so Obama could sign the new law on his first day in office. Students who begin school in September would be eligible.

"We really shouldn't have young people not going to college because they can't afford it," Fattah said, adding that Philadelphia as a city has a dismal record of producing college-educated adults. "The one barrier we can remove is the financial barrier."

Philip Gerbino, president of the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, spoke for the others when he said, "Anything you can do to unburden our students is extraordinary. We might have questions about the execution, but we're all on board."

Gerbino said he definitely hears about the tough economy from his students.

"The issue is uncertainty. They're not certain that their banks are going to give them loans. They're not certain their parents are going to be employed," Gerbino said.

Fattah also urged the presidents to think about the economic stimulus bill Congress is likely to present to Obama early in his presidency. The president-elect has said that rather than rebate checks, he wants to invest in projects with long-term effects that put people to work.

"You can benefit, and you can help this economy at the same time," Fattah told the group. He said projects that could be ready to go within six months - new college buildings, repairs to existing infrastructure - could be good contenders for inclusion in a stimulus package.

Take advantage of Obama's pro-education message, Fattah urged the presidents.

"I think you can be heard - you have a chance to move forward very aggressively," Fattah said.

Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com.