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More Middle-Income Students Should Get Pell Grants, Members of House Panel Say

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Washington--Democratic and Republican representatives last week told Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander that they favor increasing the number of students from middle-income and working-class families who receive Pell Grants to pay for college.

Coming on the heels of a similar reception by a Senate committee, the House members' opposition indicates that the Bush Administration's plan to concentrate the grants on the most needy students is likely to be rejected by the Congress.

"I am a little bit distressed ... to see the Administration's insistence on narrowing the scope of aid to a small band of the most economically needy population," William D. Ford, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and its Postsecondary Education Subcommittee, said at a subcommittee hearing.

"We're hearing more and more, Mr. Secretary, that we're expanding the size of the pot that are falling through the cracks," Mr. Ford added.

Mr. Ford's comments came during a hearing on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 that featured Secretary Alexander's explanation of the Bush Administration's reauthorization proposal.

The Administration, which will offer related legislation by the end of the month, has suggested extensive changes in the act, but the most contentious has been a plan to eliminate 400,000 Pell Grant recipients in exchange for boosting the dollar amount of grants to students from families earning less than $10,000.

Panel members said that such a plan would tighten the screws on middle-class families and that itwould foster a system that serves only the poor and the rich.

"This group badly needs the help," said Representative Marge Roukema, Republican of New Jersey. "They pay back their loans, but they need cash flow."

Ms. Roukema even likened the Administration's proposal to a plan offered by David A. Stockman, budget director during the Reagan Administration, that he acknowledged was designed to dismantle the program.

The House members' sentiments were similar to those expressed by members of the Senate Education, Arts, and Humanities Subcommittee--who heard testimony from Mr. Alexander last month--although House Republicans more directly echoed Democrats' criticism than did their Senate counterparts. (See Education Week, April 17, 1991.)

As he did before the Senate, Mr. Alexander defended the Administration's proposal, saying that, given its limited resources, the Administration believes it is best to concentrate grant aid on the most needy and to make more loan aid available to middle-income students.

"The question is whether to give low-income families larger grants or whether to give all families smaller grants," Mr. Alexander said.

In addition, he said, the Administration is not prepared to present a direct-loan proposal, in which loans would be made to students from the federal government via colleges. He said more pressing student-loan issues, including the high rate of defaults and the need to restore the program's credibility, are receiving the most attention.

Also at the hearing, Representative Tom Coleman, Republican of Missouri, said the Congress, in response to some colleges' curbs on offensive and inflammatory speech, should address the issue of free speech when it reauthorizes the hea

But Mr. Alexander and Mr. Ford said such legislation might impinge on academic freedom.

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