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Students To Lose Social Security Benefits

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A Congressional decision last August to phase out a federal assistance program for college students that is almost as large as the principal student assistance programs administered by the Education Department has gone largely unnoticed.

As a result, as many as 40,000 college-bound high-school seniors could learn in the next few months that they will be ineligible to receive funds from the 16-year-old Social Security educational-benefits program, which provided $2.4 billion in aid last year to 904,000 students who are the children of widows, widowers, retirees, and disabled persons.

According to the new laws governing the program, high-school students who fail to enroll full time in a post-secondary institution by May 1, 1982 will not be entitled to the financial-aid benefits, which averaged $227 per month per student last year--more than $2,700 annually for each individual covered. Many of the students who would otherwise be eligible for the program will not graduate from high school until late May or early June, eliminating them from eligibility, unless schools and colleges find ways to enroll students in college before the May deadline.

Despite evidence that few families are aware of the potential loss they face, John B. Trollinger, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration, said that students affected by the cuts will not be mailed information detailing new laws governing the program. In the past, the agency has commonly sent brochures out to notify beneficiaries of changes in Social Security programs.

Administration's Intent

"Congress's intent was to remove students from Social Security rolls, and the [Social Security] administration felt it was necessary to implement that mandate as soon as possible," Mr. Trollinger said. "It is not the intent of the administration to notify students of methods on how to circumvent Congress's action. Certainly, we do not discourage students from accelerating their graduation date, but we do not encourage them either. We have made no attempt to either publicize or not publicize that fact."

"Practically speaking," he added, "there is only a small number of students who could have used that information, considering the fact that it would have reached them well after the current academic year got underway. We felt that it would not have been helpful to notify each individual."

Mr. Trollinger said that students or their parents could pick up a special pamphlet available at all local Social Security offices detailing the new program regulations. He added that service personnel at the offices have received special training enabling them to explain the new regulations over the telephone to anyone who inquires.

But a spot check of local Social Security offices late last week in Berkeley, Seattle, Denver, and Cincinnati indicated that staff members in those offices have received very few calls requesting information regarding the new laws. They also said that very few of the pamphlets have been distributed.

Dallas Martin, executive director of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Officers, attributes the small number of inquiries to the fact that affected families are not aware of the change and are in socio-economic groups which make it less likely that they will learn of them on their own.

He cited a study conducted by the General Accounting Office in 1980, which reported that more than half of the students receiving Social Security education benefits that year came from families with an annual income of less than $8,000, and that 84 percent of them came from families earning less than $20,000 annually.

Heavier Reliance

The study, he said, also found that 20 percent of the student beneficiaries were black. "Only 11 percent of all students enrolled in all postsecondary institutions are black, indicating that students from this group rely more heavily on the Social Security program to finance their edu-cations than most others," Mr. Martin said. "I suspect the same would hold true for Hispanics, but the study had no data on that group."

Mr. Martin said that the main threat facing students affected by the new regulations is the unintended miscalculation of their total financial-aid package by college officials.

"High-school students are asked to report expected sources of income in the upcoming year when they apply for financial aid," Mr. Martin explained. "I suspect there are still quite a few students out there now who are reporting that they expect to receive Social Security benefits next year, when in fact they will not."

"Still, the school will calculate their total financial-aid package as if that money is forthcoming," he said. Normally, when a miscalculation like that is made, the school can re-evaluate the student's financial-aid package and find other sources of aid like Pell Grants, Work-Study, and the like, Mr. Martin said.

Programs to be Eliminated

But the problem is compounded, he said, because most other federal student financial-aid programs already have been cut back by as much as 60 percent this year. Last week it was reported that the Reagan Admininstration plans to eliminate some of those programs--most notably Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants and National Direct Student Loans--completely by the end of the next fiscal year.

'Enlarge the Pool'

"The Administration has said people affected by cuts in the Social Security program will be covered by the other financial-aid programs," he continued. "But those programs are already servicing a very large number of students. Cutting the Social Security program will only serve to enlarge the pool of students eligible for the other programs, a pot that's being reduced as well. It doesn't add up at all. Maybe they think the funds will multiply miraculously like fish and loaves of bread."

Students who do manage to meet the May 1982 cutoff date will receive the higher-education benefits through April 1985, until they finish school, or reach age 22, whichever comes first. Those students, however, will no longer receive checks from May through August, will no longer be eligible for cost-of-living increases as will other Social Security beneficiaries, and will have the amount of their future checks gradually reduced up to the April 1985 program termination date.

Qualification Possible

High-school guidance counselors, student financial-aid officers, and Social Security officials agree that it would be possible--but at this late date highly improbable--for some high-school seniors to push up their academic schedule, graduate at the end of the current term, and enroll in college in the upcoming winter semester in order to qualify for the program.

However, at least one school--Hauppauge High School in Suffolk County, New York--has identified students affected by the new law and arranged for their early graduation. Some postsecondary institutions, like Delta College in Saginaw, Mich., have announced the creation of special dual-enrollment programs for high-school students affected by the program cuts.

Albert Wetterhahn, a guidance counselor at Hauppauge High School, said that he first heard of the changes in the Social Security program in late August.

"I got a call from a member of our local school board," Mr. Wetterhahn said. "She asked if we could arrange it so that her daughter could graduate in January instead of June. When I asked her why, she told me about the Social Security changes. From there, we began identifying all the persons in the senior class who would be affected. Before we knew it, we were talking about 5 percent of the senior class."

So far about 15 of the seniors at Hauppauge affected by the program revisions have opted to graduate early, Mr. Wetterhahn said.

"The remaining 20 students plan to leave school without their diplomas, register in local colleges that will accept them, take courses that can be transfered back to us for high school credit, and get their diploma that way," he said.

"It's this group that I sympathize with the most," he continued. "They're taking quite a gamble because the idea is that they can succeed in college without having completed high school."

Mr. Wetterhahn said he believed that the students leaving high school early would suffer no harm academically. "But socially and emotionally, this has caused a tremendous upheaval in their lives," he added. "Senior year was supposed to be a good time for them, and now it's something that they will miss out on. They have been told that they can attend the senior prom and other events with their classmates, but when you're not there with them every day, it's different."

Mr. Wetterhahn said news of the program's impending discontinuance has "devastated" the parents of several students.

"Generally, these people have a few children, the oldest of whom has been able to attend college because they received this aid," he said. "Now these parents are having the rug pulled out from under them. Not only have some of them lost their spouse, but now they are facing a situation where they might have to tell their youngest children that they can't afford to send them to college."

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