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Let's do more to help the poor get a college education

Congress heard a warning last week that if the federal government and the states do not increase need-based grants, millions of qualified students will be denied a college education during the next decade.

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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 30, 2002


The rich keep getting richer, and poor keep getting poorer -- and left out.

One group that feels poorer and more left out is the nation's thousands of qualified high school graduates who will be prevented from enjoying the benefits of a full college education.

A new report, "Empty Promises," released by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, found that for this year alone, 406,000 academically acceptable high school graduates will not have the means to attend a four-year college. Another 168,000 will not be able to attend a college of any kind because they simply are broke.

Congress established the committee in 1986 to analyze financial aid policy.

How can this sorry condition exist in the world's richest industrialized nation, where the likes of WorldCom, Enron, Tyco, Rite Aid, Adelphia Communications, Dynergy, ImClone Systems, Arthur Andersen, Martha Stewart and others can play games with millions to billions of dollars, where CEOs are routinely paid millions and handed huge stock option packages even when their companies perform so-so?

Broadly speaking, greed, wrong-headed values and our deepening, conservative dismissal of low-income families have created a climate that permits this trend.

Reporting to Congress last Wednesday, the advisory committee and the secretary of education warned that if the federal government and the states do not increase need-based grants, millions of qualified students will be denied a college education during the next decade. In addition to facing a severe shortage of grants and scholarships, needy students, like others, face sharply rising tuition costs.

"Empty Promises" studied high school graduates whose families earned less than $50,000 a year. Republicans like to blame the victim, arguing that low- to moderate-income students do not attend four-year colleges in large numbers because they are poorly educated and are unmotivated before reaching college age. But the report, requested by Congress, looked at students who took college preparatory courses, passed them and held grade point averages of B-minus or higher.

The report clearly shows the students in question are not throwaway losers but high school graduates whose parents happen to be poor and who lack political clout. The findings are to be used in the 2003 congressional debate over the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

These are some of the specific findings: A qualified student from a low-income family (less than $25,000 annually) still needs up to $3,800 a year after loans, grants and work-study employment. Working and borrowing, parents of low-income students struggle to pay an average of $7,500 a year at a four-year state college, which is nearly one-third of their salary.

Juliet V. Garcia, the committee's chairwoman, said during the next 10 years, 4.4-million qualified students will not be able to afford a four-year college education, and 2-million will not be able to attend any college.

Garcia said mere statistics do not reflect the daily hardship low-income students confront. To attend college full time, they assume excessive debt and work long hours that prevent them from attending classes, studying and entertaining themselves as they should.

Although the government increased Pell grants, the nation's largest grant funder, by $3.3-billion over two years, low-income students are still being shunted.

Why? Because the rate of college tuition hikes is outpacing inflation. "No other sector of the economy is increasing at twice the rate of inflation," said Jeff Andrade, deputy assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.

States have been hard hit by the current economic slowdown, and most took the path of least resistance to cover red ink: They automatically increased tuition. Another cause for the tuition increase is that endowment-giving has dipped lower than it has been in years.

"Empty Promises" also indicates that although low-income students and their parents are more likely than their upper-income counterparts to read financial aid information, many (43 percent) do not personally speak with financial aid counselors.

In other words, out of ignorance, many do not take advantage of aid officially available to them. Because so much is at stake -- the loss of college-qualified students -- high school counselors and college financial aid representatives should become more proactive and encourage low-income clients to talk with advisers.

Everyone would benefit from such a move. Low-income students may not get rich as a result, but at least they will not be left out of opportunities.

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