As Tuition Climbs, More States Ponder College-Aid Plans

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With concerns over the cost of college rising as fast as tuition itself, state leaders from Maine to Montana are making plans for a tidal wave of new college-aid programs. But some experts wonder whether the financial help will reach the neediest students.

Tuition-assistance programs are being announced at a time when access to college is a worry not only for needy families, but also for the comfortable middle class, according to Amy Cook, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

"College costs are a major public concern," she said in a recent interview. "An explosion of student debt coupled with rising tuition have parents and students wringing their hands. These programs are a way lawmakers can deal with these worries."

Gov. Paul E. Patton

Tuition at public and private universities is rising at about 6 percent each year, or at about twice the rate of inflation, according to the New York City-based College Board. At the same time, student-loan debt has exploded, with more students--53 percent of all college graduates in 1997--owing more money--a total debt burden of $36 billion in federally guaranteed student loans last year--than ever, or more than double the figure from five years ago, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In response, at least a dozen states in the past year have promised relief.

Ed. Elmendorf

Some of the new and proposed state tuition-aid programs exclusively target families struggling to meet college costs, capping benefits for those in higher income brackets, according to the ECS. Others, including a groundbreaking Georgia initiative, do not factor in family income. Several of the new programs are merit-based, linking tuition support to student performance, and that has some critics concerned.

"There's no doubt [such programs are] politically popular," said Ed Elmendorf, the vice president of government relations for the Washington-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "But they're not good policy."

Tuition programs typically "don't help low-income students," he added. "The money is going to people who need it the least. Our sense is that these funds should be targeted to people who need it the most."

The Georgia Model

The mother of all such tuition programs, experts say, is Georgia's HOPE scholarship, which, since September 1993, has used $470 million in state lottery money to send more than 300,000 students to state colleges, universities, and technical programs. HOPE--Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally--provides Georgia high school students who graduate with at least a B average their tuition, mandatory fees, and a $100-per-quarter book allowance. Scholarships are awarded regardless of family or individual income.

Georgia officials say that, with a 95 percent approval rating, HOPE scholarships are the most popular public-policy program in their state's history. Other states have been lining up to tap into the idea.

"It's been unbelievable," said Steve Tompkins, the spokesman for the Georgia State Finance Commission, which manages the HOPE scholarships. "Calls have been coming in from all over the country."

Kentucky is one of the latest states to jump on the scholarship bandwagon.

In January, Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, the Democratic co-chairman of the state's joint education committee, and Gov. Paul E. Patton, also a Democrat, announced details of an initiative patterned after Georgia's.

Their plan would base awards on high school students' grades and college admission-test scores. Students with A averages and high test scores would earn full scholarships, while those with slightly above-average grades--at least a 2.5 grade point average--could earn partial scholarships. As in Georgia, proceeds from the state lottery would pay for the program. Scholarships also would be awarded without regard to personal or family income.

Economic Incentives

Several states also are mulling over tuition tax credits.

Michigan's 3-year-old tax deduction, which is typical of such programs, provides students or families with dependent children attending state colleges and universities tax credits of up to $375 a year. In Washington, President Clinton authored a package of direct assistance and federal tax credits last year as a means to broaden "universal access" to college and training programs. ("Ga. Plan Offers Key To Opening College Doors," Feb 12, 1997.)

Maine officials, meanwhile, are considering their own tuition-assistance bill. Democratic House Speaker Elizabeth H. Mitchell is sponsoring the Maine First Scholars Program, a $13 million measure that would provide one-time aid of up to $3,600 each to incoming freshmen attending in-state public or private schools.

Unlike the Georgia program, Maine First, however, would provide the poorest students with the most support and exclude families or individuals with incomes of more than $50,000.

"This bill intends to encourage more Maine kids to go to college," said David Bragdon, a spokesman for Speaker Mitchell. Maine ranks near the bottom in the nation in the percentage of high school graduates who pursue a college degree, at around 50 percent, Mr. Bragdon pointed out.

"A prime motivation [for the bill] is economic development," he said. "Business leaders here have said that they have to look elsewhere to find the skilled workers they need, while low-skilled workers in Maine are getting laid off."

Maine's need-based aid program stands out in the pack, said Lawrence E. Gladieux, the executive director for policy at the College Board, which administers the SAT college-entrance exam.

In general, he said, college remains affordable for most families. He characterized the new federal and most state tuition programs as well-intentioned but unnecessary "windfalls for middle- and upper-middle-class families."

A Question of Focus

Mr. Gladieux and others argue that, given the shrinking pool of need-based scholarships and higher education funding, state and federal resources should be directed toward students in the lowest income brackets.

"The question in regards to higher education has been 'How can we do more with less?'" said Thomas Mortenson, a policy analyst for the Washington-based Center for the Study of Opportunity and Higher Education and the publisher of the newsletter Postsecondary Education Opportunity.

"And in a time of limited government resources, the answer is, focus on the folks who need help the most: the lowest economic tier. Poor people may not scream as loud or vote as often as the middle class, but that doesn't mean we can ignore them," he said.

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