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Many Seniors Found Aid 'Loophole'

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Washington--A substantial number of high-school students apparently managed to sneak through a "legal loophole" during the first four months of this year and enrolled in college early in order to preserve their eligibility for a student-aid program of the Social Security Administration.

Furthermore, an official conducting a study at a community college in New York where 400 such students enrolled early this year said that most of those students have managed to stay in school and are faring almost as well as typical college freshmen.

According to the Social Security Administration, the number of college students who received payments during the first four months of the year surged by approximately 133,000, from 760,508 at the end of December 1981 to 893,093 by May 1, 1982.

An agency spokesman said last week that there was no way to determine precisely how many of the new Social Security beneficiaries were 18-year-olds who made the jump from high school to college during the winter months in order to beat a May 1 eligibility deadline for the aid. He did not, however, discount the possibility that a "rush" on colleges had actually occurred.

Eligible Seniors

Agency officials said last winter that precise figures were not available on the number of high-school seniors eligible for the college benefits, but estimated the number to be about 160,000. Other informed sources said at the time that the number could be as high as 300,000.

Lobbyists who led an unsuccessful attempt earlier this year to convince the Congress to extend the May 1 deadline also said that the bulge in Social Security's program participation figures seem to support the conclusion that a great many of the eligible seniors enrolled in college before the deadline.

As of Aug. 31, 683,383 college students remained on Social Security's benefit rolls. Philip Gambino, a Social Security spokesman, said the 210,000-student decrease between April and August probably reflects in large part the number of college seniors who stopped receiving payments after receiving degrees in May and June.

Mr. Gambino also said that the number of students receiving Social Security checks would probably increase somewhat during the next few months. He explained that many potential beneficiaries have been temporarily "bumped off" the agency's rolls because they failed to file reports with Social Security over the summer affirming that they will maintain a full course load in college in the current term.

Under a law passed by the Congress in late August 1981, last year's high-school seniors who did not manage to enroll in college by the beginning of May could not receive the benefits, which averaged $260 per month last year.

The new law also stipulated that student benefits would be cut by 25 percent during each of the next four years until the program is totally phased out in April 1985.

The program is intended to help offset the college costs of the children of disabled, retired, or deceased workers.

Social Security officials came under intense criticism from members of Congress and a number of education officials earlier this year for failing to notify high-school seniors who may have been expecting the college benefits that they would not receive the aid if they failed to enroll in college by the May 1 deadline.

The Congress' actions on the Social Security college-benefit program went largely unnoticed until mid-December last year.

At that time, Social Security administrators said that a full-scale notification effort was not undertaken because the Congress intended to cut students from the Social Security rolls, and it was not the intent of the agency to notify students of "legal loopholes" that could be used to circumvent the Congress's intent.

The Social Security officials also said that such an effort was not warranted because few high-school students would have been able to disrupt their academic schedules in mid-year and enroll in college before graduating.

John P. Mallan, a lobbyist for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said the agency's figures on benefits paid to college students appear to contradict the Administration officials' predictions.

"The agency's figures suggest that the campaign to get high-school students enrolled in college was much more successful than anyone could have predicted," Mr. Mallan said. "I'm quite pleased."

After the May 1 cutoff date be-came widely known last winter, a number of school districts and postsecondary institutions reported that they were cooperating in efforts to enroll students in college before they graduated from high school.

One such college--Suffolk County Community College on Long Island, N.Y.--allowed some 400 high-school seniors to enroll for classes, according to Herbert W. Zagarow, dean of students at the college's Riverhead campus.

The college's trustees commissioned Mr. Zagarow to conduct a study of those students. Although it is not complete, Mr. Zagarow said the study will probably indicate that the high-school seniors who rushed into college "ran into only slightly greater academic difficulties than normal college freshmen."

"Registration for the winter term ended only recently, so we still haven't had an opportunity to gauge how many of these students have returned to school," he continued. "But my general impression is that the retention rate will be very close to that of our typical freshmen.''

Mr. Zagarow explained that this will probably be the case because "most of these kids planned to attend college anyway."

"So, even if they did not do as well academically as did typical freshmen in their first year, we expect that they will do just as well in the long run," he said.

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