Measure Would Heighten Awareness of Pell Grants

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A bill that would require the federal government to notify 6th graders in low-income neighborhoods that they will be eligible for Pell Grants is gaining political support.

By informing poor students at an early age that they could receive the grants for postsecondary education, they may begin to view college as a realistic proposition and adjust their academic goals accordingly, said Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., the bill's sponsor.

"Students who see themselves outside of the mainstream will act in ways that place them outside of the mainstream," Rep. Fattah said during a conference here last week marking the 25th anniversary of the Pell Grant program. "This will put within their own sights the potential of a far greater future."

With more than 115 bipartisan co-sponsors, the measure will likely be backed by President Clinton during the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, slated for next year, Mr. Fattah said.

The proposal would also address one of the long-neglected goals of the Pell Grant program, observers said.

Claiborne Pell

Established in 1972 under the leadership of then-Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., the program originally sought to serve as an impetus for disadvantaged students to seek postsecondary degrees. But while an estimated 30 million students have received more than $100 billion in Pell Grants over the past quarter-century, the program itself has not increased the number of students from low-income families who pursue education beyond high school, said Lawrence Gladieux, the director of policy research for the College Board, which is based in New York City.

Most students don't know they qualify for Pell Grants until they begin the financial-aid application process shortly before they enter college, he pointed out.

"We've got to tie the [grant] money to the aspirations of low-income students," Mr. Gladieux said. "That's a riddle we've been living with for 25 years."

Loose Ends

Through the "21st Century Scholars Program," as Mr. Fattah's proposal is called, students living in neighborhoods where more than 75 percent of the children come from low-income families would be told that they qualify for the maximum federal Pell Grant award if they pursue a postsecondary education when they graduate high school.

They would receive a letter detailing this information upon completion of the 6th grade. Rep. Fattah estimated that about 500,000 students would qualify for notification.

Under the federal education spending bill signed by President Clinton last week, the maximum Pell Grant award was increased from $2,700 a year to $3,000 a year for the current fiscal year.

But while the 21st Century Scholars proposal is gaining support, it still contains a number of loose ends that need to be tied, student-aid experts say.

Mr. Fattah said he is still grappling with such questions as whether all qualifying 6th graders would receive the maximum Pell Grant when they apply to college, even if their families' incomes have risen substantially in the meantime.

A larger issue is whether federal officials could promise 6th grade students that they will qualify for grants in six years when the government "doesn't make fiscal commitments that far in advance," Mr. Gladieux added.

The most important aspect of Mr. Fattah's bill is that it would tell students early on that they shouldn't think a postsecondary education is economically unfeasible, said David Longanecker, the assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the Department of Education.

"What we find most appealing is the idea to say strongly to young people, 'You needn't worry, we'll find a way to make it possible for you to go to college,'" Mr. Longanecker said.

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