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Ideas for Revising Student Aid Focus on Need For Information, Help Years Before College

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By Mark Pitsch

Washington--Soliciting advice and gathering evidence to help them overhaul the student financial-aid system, federal lawmakers say they are getting one message loud and clear: The earlier the better.

For the past several months, members of the Congressional committees that oversee the aid system have been holding hearings in the early stages of the process of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act of 1965.

One of their primary goals, several members have said, is to make the $11-billion financial-aid system more responsive and responsible to students.

And one way to do that, members of the education and business communities who have testified before the panels say, is through "early intervention" programs.

It is not enough to make it easier for the college bound to obtain more aid, lawmakers have been told.

Students, as young as those in the 6th grade and especially the disadvantaged, need to know that college--and the money to pay for it--is accessible, advocates say.

"Every time someone is talking about higher education, they end up talking about junior high," said an aide to Senator Nancy L. Kassebaum, the Republican from Kansas who is the ranking minority member of the Senate Education, Arts, and Humanities Subcommittee.

Added Tim Christensen of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators: Early intervention is being discussed "all over town."

And it appears the lawmakers are listening.

Although language reauthorizing the hea will not be developed until later this year, five bills addressing early intervention have already been introduced.

And at a hearing last week, members of the House Postsecondary Education Subcommittee went out of their way to stress the importance of incorporating a new intervention component into the act.

"Many kids don't even think of going to college, and that's why early intervention is so important, why the information [about financial aid] is so important," said Representative Nita M. Lowey, Democrat of New York.

Acknowledging that early intervention is not a "sexy" issue, Representative William D. Ford, the Democrat from Michigan who chairs both the postsecondary subcommittee and the full Education and Labor Committee, said the subject, nonetheless, must be addressed.

"I'm afraid we're wasting a lot of human capital," he added.

Several ideas still are on the drawing board, and such key legislators as Mr. Ford; Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Democrat from Massachusetts who chairs the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee; and Senator Claiborne Pell, the Democrat from Rhode Island who is chairman of the Senate Education, Arts, and Humanities Subcommittee, have yet to sign off on any of them.

Two Intervention Models

But two models, both detailed at last week's House panel hearing, are most commonly discussed.

One ensures that students, in as early as their junior-high years, have the information on admissions and financial aid they need to make decisions about college. Under the model, training would be offered to counselors, and the Education Department would be required to better publicize the availability of aid.

A second approach would "guarantee" tuition for at-risk students--identified at a young age--who show academic promise.

No matter what model ultimately wins the legislators' approval--and perhaps both will--lobbyists and education aides say the act will almost certainly include some form of early-intervention legislation.

"Early intervention is one of the true innovations that we may be able to accomplish in this reauthorization," said Jamie Merisotis, a higher-education consultant who has been working on the issue for the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. "I feel con4fident that something is going to come out of it."

Statistical evidence on the success of early-intervention programs is not bountiful, although the General Accounting Office has noted that numerous private early-intervention programs--such as the "I Have A Dream" program created by the New York businessman Eugene Lang--are highly successful, especially when a mentoring component is incorporated. Under Mr. Lang's program, selected disadvantaged students who complete high school and refuse to use drugs are guaranteed college tuition.

Other programs termed early successes by observers are the private Taylor Plan in Louisiana and two state-sponsored efforts, the New York Liberty Scholarship Program and the Rhode Island Children's Crusade.

The problem with assessing the value of guaranteed-tuition programs is that most are in their early stages, making it too soon to tell if they work.

Need for Programs

But while comprehensive data on the value of early intervention may not be available, lawmakers, their aides, counselors, students, and members of the education community say they have no doubt about the need for such programs. For instance, they say:

  • High-school counselors' knowledge of the student-aid process varies wildly. Indeed, many of them, not to mention parents, are not aware of aid opportunities, several college students testified at a hearing earlier this year. The g.a.o. concluded similarly in a 1990 report.
  • High-school guidance counselors, who have responsibility for an average of 400 students, are overburdened. After assisting students with class schedules, addressing their emotional needs, handling disciplinary problems, and helping administer standardized tests, counselors say they do not have the time to learn the intricacies of the student-aid process.
  • College costs are rising, admissions standards at many universities are increasing, and the number of traditional-age college students is declining. Also pointing to the need for early intervention, advocates note, is the nation's high dropout rate and the low college-attendance rates of minorities and low-income students.
  • For-profit companies that provide student-aid information for a fee have proliferated since the early 1980's.

Not Knowing 'What It Takes'

Most high schools do not have the money to train counselors in the ins and outs of financial aid, officials with the National Association of College Admissions Counselors say, noting that, until 28 categorical programs were consolidated into the Chapter 2 block grant in 1981, the federal government allocated money specifically for counselor training.

In an interview, Georgia Arrington-Booker, who handles college-admissions and student-aid counseling at Woodrow Wilson High School here, said she recently paid $700 of her own money to attend a college-counseling conference because her school could not afford to send her.

But, she said, most of her colleagues--especially those working in poor, inner-city districts--do not have the resources to attend meetings on their own.

The result, Ms. Arrington-Booker said, is that the students suffer because counselors lack the information to do their jobs well.

Numerous students with the potential to succeed in college do not apply because they have not been advised to take the appropriate preparation courses, she said, and they become deterred by the costs of postsecondary education and are not aware of financial-aid opportunities.

"Many of them, especially first-generation students, don't know what it takes to go to college," Ms. Arrington-Booker said. "[Some] don't even think about going to college because they hear it is so expensive--and it is--but they don't know there are financial-aid programs available."

"If we had some training that was available and free," she added, ''counselors would avail themselves, and the process would work better."

The five early-intervention bills that have been introduced in the Congress are designed to make more information available to counselors and students and to provide financial incentives for disadvantaged students to attend college.

They are:

  • S 501. Sponsored by Senator Herb Kohl, Democrat of Wisconsin, "the student counseling and assistance network act" would authorize $130 million for the Education Department to embark on a national advertising and publicity campaign on student aid and to centralize aid information, which would be easily accessible to high-school students and guidance counselors.
  • HR 1524. Sponsored by Representative Tom Sawyer, Democrat of Ohio, the bill mirrors Mr. Kohl's measure, but includes a provision for the training of college counselors. A total of $180 million would be authorized under the bill.
  • S 585. Sponsored by Senator James M. Jeffords, Republican of Vermont, the bill would establish a program to help at-risk students college. It would authorize $85 million in matching funds that would go to states that developed early-intervention programs. Such programs would pay a disadvantaged student's college tuition if the student met certain academic criteria.
  • HR 763. Sponsored by Representative Harold E. Ford, Democrat of Tennessee, the bill would provide $25,000 scholarships to at-risk students who met certain academic criteria. A total of $25 million would be authorized under the bill, which calls for the federal government to work directly with 50 high schools in establishing the program.
  • An as-yet-unnumbered bill sponsored by Representative Lowey. The legislation, modeled on the New York Liberty Scholarship Program, would provide matching funds to states that already have in place early-intervention programs and for those that establish "last dollar" programs, which make up the cost of tuition after student-aid sources have been exhausted.

In addition, an aide to Mr. Kennedy said the senator is considering introducing an early-intervention bill.

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