Agency Will Tell Students of Aid Cuts;
Washington--The Social Security Administration, responding to complaints from members of Congress and their constituents, has announced that it will begin sending notices at the end of this month to approximately 800,000 high-school and college students warning them of the impending elimination of a $2.4-billion education benefit program.
Some members of Congress quickly responded, however, that the warnings would be much too late and would do little or nothing to help an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 college-bound high-school seniors who could lose thousands of dollars in financial aid over the next four years unless they manage to enroll in postsecondary institutions by May 1.
Extend Deadline Date
Few of the students who are still unaware of the May 1 deadline, the Representatives charge, could take advantage of the warning to enroll in college early--as thousands of their peers have in recent weeks--because most colleges across the country have already begun their winter semesters. The only equitable solution, the legislators add, would be to extend the deadline date for students attempting to enroll in colleges in order to qualify for the benefits.
Three bills proposing a change in the cutoff date--one to July 1 and two to October 1--have recently been introduced in the House of Representatives and have been referred to the the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security.
The sponsor of one of the bills, Representative Gerald B. Solomon, Republican of New York, said in testimony before that subcommittee on Feb. 5 that Congress can expect support from the Reagan Administration on the proposed deadline extension.
Representative Solomon said that he has spoken to Reagan Administration officials and believes "that we can look to their support on a guarantee that the class of '82 will be eligible for the benefits over the next four years."
"I don't think that the Administration is aware of how Social Security mishandled this affair, and I think that they will take that into account" if presented with a proposal to extend the eligibility deadline, he said. "If Social Security erred, I'm sure that the Administration will attempt to take care of it."
Paul B. Simmons, a Social Security deputy commissioner who testified before the subcommittee, said the agency decided to send brochures describing changes in the program to all student beneficiaries late this month in order to correct a bureaucratic mishap at two regional service centers in Kansas City, Mo., and Birmingham, Ala.
Mr. Simmons said that as of mid-January, officials at the two regional centers were still mailing outdated and potentially misleading pamphlets to all high-school students eligible for the program. Such pamphlets have traditionally been sent to eligible young people five months before their 18th birthdays along with a standard notification form.
The pamphlets were printed in December 1980 and thus did not reflect legislative changes that went into effect in late August following President Reagan's signing of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, Mr. Simmons explained.
James Brown, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration, said in a telephone interview last week that college students who currently receive the benefits and only those high-school students who have informed the agency that they plan to pursue a college education will receive an updated version of the brochure.
The brochures will be mailed nationwide, he said, because the agency cannot single out which students received the outdated information.
During the Congressional hearing, Representative J.J. Pickle, Democrat of Texas and chairman of the Social Security subcommittee, asked Mr. Simmons why the agency did not mail a similar brochure to the high-school students shortly after the budget cuts were announced late last summer.
Mr. Simmons said "broader considerations," such as the agency's backlog of computer time, prevented such action from being taken. "There's no way for us to push a button and get information just like that,'' he said.
"Also, sending brochures would have notified students how to circumvent the intent of the law," which was to remove students from Social Security rolls, Mr. Simmons added.
'Circumvent the Law'
"But young people and their parents have been expecting that aid to finance their college careers," Representative Pickle responded. "For you to say that they intend to 'circumvent the law,' well, that's amazing."
Mr. Simmons also said early notification would have caused "needless alarm" among many Social Security beneficiaries unaffected by the education-benefit cuts, with the likely result "that both Social Security offices and Congressional offices would have been swamped with calls and complaints."
"Do you mean to say that calls from beneficiaries are something to avoid, something bad?" Representative Pickle asked.
Representative Thomas J. Downey, Democrat of New York, pointed out at the hearing that "even if the Social Security Administration were to notify everyone who will be affected by the cuts tomorrow, it would still be too late for them to enroll in school." Stronger action is necessary, he said, "to restore the American public's confidence in the integrity of their federal government."
Representative Downey is the sponsor of a bill that would move the cutoff date for eligibility in the program from May to October 1982. "Clearly, this will cost some money," he admitted. "However, I firmly believe that protecting the rights of American citizens cannot be prized too highly."
A similar bill, which would extend the eligibility deadline by 61 days to July 1, is being sponsored by Representative Solomon. "This course of action would alleviate m A similar bill, which would extend the eligibility deadline by 61 days to July 1, is being sponsored by Representative Solomon. "This course of action would alleviate much of the existing confusion by providing ample time for seniors who only learned of these eligibility changes very recently to graduate with their classmates and properly enroll in a college summer-session study program in order to protect their eligibility," he explained at the subcommittee hearing. Representative Solomon estimated that the government would have to spend a maximum of $245 million over the next four years if all potential student beneficiaries manage to enroll in colleges by the proposed July deadline.
"If students had heard about the cutoff earlier, they could have begun working last summer and started saving money," he said.
"I feel that we, in government, owe at least that much to these students."