Financial Aid and the Reagan Administration: Questioning the Commitment to Equal Opportunity
Financial aid. It was--and is--a powerful idea, one born in a spirit of national concern and fired in the crucible of the civil-rights" movement. Few other countries have even aspired to the idea of extending equal educational opportunity to every qualified student regardless of his or her financial circumstances. None has done so much to advance it.
We have fought to increase the dollars: from $56 million in 1958 to more than $16 billion today. Over the intervening quarter-century, we have seen an expansion of opportunity in this country unparalleled anywhere in the world.
We have fought for a system that delivers the dollars to needy students on the basis of a single application for all forms of federal, state, college, and private assistance.
In every Administration since Eisenhower's, Democratic or Republican, we have seen a bipartisan federal commitment to equal educational opportunity. In Congress today, there are many Democrats and Republicans who continue to support this national goal.
But within the current Administration, there are some who would bury the idea forever, and with it, the progress we have made as a nation toward equalizing opportunity on all fronts. It is not the Administration's responsibility--or right--to reinterpret the clear public policy of the last 30 years. It is the Administration's job to implement that policy, and it is refusing to do so.
The Administration already has cut the federal student-aid budget. In September, Congress overrode a presidential veto that would have eliminated still more dollars. But now, with the November elections behind us, the Administration will bring its budget-cutting proposals back to Congress. We had better be ready.
Nor is the appropriations process the only front on which the Administration wages its war against equal educational opportunity. In recent months, it has also tried to undermine the delivery system.
Because the administration refused to make timely decisions about Pell-Grant eligibility rules and Multiple-Data-Entry requirements, the distribution of financial aid forms and other aid applications was delayed by a full two months--well into the college-admissions cycle.
These delays will continue to cause problems during the rest of the cycle--for colleges, aid administrators, high-school counselors, and most important, students. Most worrisome is how families are likely to interpret the delayed availability of aid applications. If there is no form to apply with, how can they be expected to believe that there is aid to apply for?
College-bound seniors may scale down their aspirations, rule out the colleges that are more expensive or farther away from home, or even decide not to go at all.
The collapse of the delivery system may be exactly what the Administration wants. If there is enough confusion about how to get into the process, students will begin to select themselves out. That will reduce "demand" on the federal programs. There will appear to be "less need." What the Administration could not accomplish through budget-cutting it will accomplish by artificially deflating the real need that we know exists.
If the system collapses, we will not be able to prove that there is need. There will not even be a national data base to support our allegations. Enrollments will drop. Some colleges will close. We can offer our interpretations of those events, but we know already that our opponents will simply talk about the "natural forces of the marketplace."
For a long time, we thought that if we simply explained the disastrous effects of its actions, the Administration would alter its course.
But now it is clear that the officials knew exactly what they were doing. What they can't cut out of the budget, they try to tie up in bureaucratic red tape.
Student aid and other human-services programs do not "cause" the deficit-spending that is crippling our economy. Deficit-spending is simply spending more money than you have. And this Administration is choosing to spend more and more of the money it does not have on defense, not on human services.
Friends of higher education will have to fight much more aggressively than ever before to defend financial-aid funds and the system through which they are delivered. We must be prepared--just as the Administration is prepared--to battle it out on every front and to involve our constituencies to an unprecedented extent.
We must make the case that ultimately our national security rests not on our nuclear arsenals, but on a healthy and educated citizenry.
Vol. 02, Issue 18, Page 17