Sticker shock

February 04, 2003

IT WOULD BE a shame if America's colleges and universities became havens of only the rich and academically talented, but that could happen if a worrisome trend away from need-based financial aid isn't reversed.

Cases in point: Within two days last month, the University System of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University announced tuition increases. University system officials announced an immediate midyear boost of up to 5 percent and warned of more to come this fall. Hopkins announced a 4.9 percent increase for next year, raising the sticker price of tuition to $28,730 and the full cost of a year at Hopkins to just under $40,000.

Fortunately, most Hopkins students won't pay the full tuition. In the arcane world of higher education finances, 55 percent of Hopkins students get aid based on need. Forty-seven percent receive grants from the university's own funds: Hopkins puts 24 cents of every tuition dollar - known as the "discount rate" - into need-based aid.

State colleges and universities used to be the affordable alternatives to expensive private schools like Hopkins. But now a year at UMBC or College Park, the two most expensive state schools, is inching into the five figures. And as Chancellor William E. Kirwan points out, it's happening while the economy lags, the demand for high-quality higher education is rising and students and their families are assuming heavy debt.

Most Americans think all students have the opportunity to earn a college degree if they work hard enough. Not so. A report to Congress last year said more than 400,000 students fully prepared to attend a four-year college would be unable to do so this year, and 170,000 of these would attend no college at all because they couldn't afford it.

Pell Grants - the federal government's major aid program for low-income students - haven't kept pace with the increasing cost of college or the number of students attending. Congress needs to pump more money into these grants.

Meanwhile, starting with Georgia's HOPE scholarship program a decade ago, many states have invested heavily in broad "merit" scholarship programs based on high school grades and other criteria. Maryland's own version of HOPE has grown to $18.9 million in just a few years. And though scholarships for needy students have increased, too, their slice of the total scholarship pie has decreased from two-thirds in 1999 to less than half today.

Some Maryland private colleges have invested heavily in merit scholarships at the expense of need-based aid, too. Hopkins, an exception, gives out only 18 such grants and doesn't have to use them to attract top high school scholars; they'll come anyway. And Hopkins still uses a need-blind admissions process that yields a surprising number of low-income students.

There's nothing wrong with rewarding academic merit, but doing so shouldn't compete with or force reductions in need-based scholarships. State policy-makers need to insist that the needy are better served by scholarship programs. And colleges must resist the temptation to shift precious scholarship money from those in need to those who can pay their way.

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