Demand for New Student-Aid Programs Falls Short

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What if you set out a pot of $790 million for the needy and hundreds of millions of it went unclaimed?

That’s the quandary facing the Department of Education, which is reviewing why many eligible students seem not to have taken advantage of two new federal grant programs that help high-performing students from low-income backgrounds pay for college.

The SMART Grants—for National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent—and the Academic Competitiveness Grants were signed into law in early 2006 and became available to students starting in the 2006-07 school year. The programs were designed to entice more low-income high school students into taking rigorous classes in high-demand fields such as science, mathematics, technology, engineering, and such “critical” foreign languages as Arabic and Chinese.

Students who met the criteria for the AC Grants could receive, in addition to Pell Grant money, as much as $750 the first year of college and $1,300 the second year. Students who met SMART Grant criteria could collect up to $4,000 a year in addition to their Pell Grant allocations.

But only 360,065 students picked up money from the programs—far fewer than the 535,000 that could have been served with the available money or the 480,000 listed in President Bush’s proposed fiscal 2008 budget. Of the almost $790 million that Congress appropriated for the year, students left more than $361 million on the table.

The explanation for why the programs were underused depends on whom one asks.

Kristin D. Conklin, the senior adviser to the undersecretary at the Education Department, said it takes students time to become aware of new grant opportunities, and schools and colleges take a while to adapt administrative apparatuses to take advantage of them.

“It’s a brand-new program—they were riding the bike as they were building it,” she said, adding that the Education Department has committed itself to doubling the number of students participating in the grant programs by 2010-11.

But Ms. Conklin also placed some of the blame on schools and the states that fund them.

“Our high schools aren’t up to preparing students for the 21st century,” she said. “There are a significant number of high schools in this country that do not offer a single [Advanced Placement] class.”

To be eligible for the Academic Competitiveness Grants, recipients must have completed a “rigorous secondary school program of study.” When the grant program was first enacted, K-12 advocates voiced concerns because Congress had given the secretary of education the authority to decide what constituted such a program of study. That controversy largely died down by mid-2006, however, when the Education Department specified a broad range of ways in which high schools could satisfy the requirement.

Still, Ms. Conklin cited a National Center for Education Statistics study of high school transcripts showing that only 6 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches completed a course of study that met the Education Department’s criteria in 2005.

So, even if all the students who were otherwise eligible for the grants last year knew they existed, she said, “we still wouldn’t spend all the money Congress gave,” because of the curriculum criteria.

Eligibility Gap

The Education Department estimated that 1.6 million students receive a Pell Grant, attend a degree-granting institution full time, graduated from high school after Jan. 1, 2006, and are U.S. citizens.

However, the department estimates that of that number, only about 480,000 students nationwide will participate in the AC and SMART grant programs, because students must also have at least a 3.0 grade point average and meet the other prerequisites for participation in the programs—either by declaring a college major specified under the SMART program or by having completed a “rigorous” high school program as defined by the criteria. “Fundamentally, to spend all the money that Congress has appropriated, states and high schools have to step up to the plate and grow that statistic,” Ms. Conklin said. Through 2011, Congress has appropriated $4.5 billion for the new grant programs.

Academic Competitiveness Grant

To be eligible for a grant under the federal program, a student must:

• Be a U.S. citizen;
• Be a federal Pell Grant recipient;
• Be enrolled full time in a degree program;
• Be enrolled in the first or second academic year of his or her program of study at a two-year or four-year degree-granting institution;
• Have completed a rigorous secondary school program of study (after Jan. 1, 2006, if a first year student, and after Jan. 1, 2005, if a second-year student);
• Not have been previously enrolled in an undergraduate program, if a first-year student; and
• Have at least a cumulative 3.0 grade point average on a 4.0 scale for the first academic year, if a second-year student.

Moreover, Ms. Conklin said, the original participation projections were based primarily on budgetary and other considerations, rather than a known number of students likely to take advantage of the SMART and AC money. “It’s not based on, ‘I know there are X kids who need this,’ ” she said.

“It’s based on, Congress has given us X amount of money.”

Associations representing both schools and colleges said the programs’ main problems were complexity and overly restrictive criteria.

“Every time I mention the programs, I get a lot of rolling eyes and sighs,” said David Hawkins, the director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, an Alexandria, Va.-based group that represents more than 20,000 secondary school counselors and college-admissions officers. “They’re definitely a headache.”

Unfamiliar Position

Haley Chitty, the assistant director of communications for the Washington-based National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, a membership organization that represents more than 10,000 financial-aid officials, said open-enrollment institutions such as community colleges that enroll large numbers of poor students and don’t require high school transcripts are put in the unfamiliar position of digging through and assaying academic histories.

“It’s a nightmare to find out if [students] meet the ‘rigorous’ eligibility requirements,” Mr. Chitty said. “Any time we can get more money for students, we don’t want to turn that down, but the administrative cost is great, especially for institutions that serve predominantly low-income students.”

That cost, he added, is increased by the fact that many students have not been able to maintain 3.0 GPAs beyond freshman year, and that colleges have to make up the difference in tuition help, or the students can’t afford to keep attending.

Mr. Chitty also said it’s ironic that students who must work while attending college part time are currently excluded, given that the grants are for low-income students, who often must work to pay for college. As for the programs’ intent, Mr. Chitty said: “The awards are pretty good, but not significant enough to change students’ behaviors. Our members haven’t seen more enrollment in more-rigorous programs or students motivated to study in certain majors.”

Mr. Hawkins of the high school counselors’ and college-admissions group acknowledged that the programs’ newness had kept more students from taking part in them. But because of the administrative burdens they created for schools and universities, he said, “it wouldn’t surprise me if these were underutilized programs for years to come.”

Vol. 27, Issue 14, Pages 18-19

Published in Print: December 5, 2007, as Demand for New Student-Aid Programs Falls Short
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