Front-loaded, spin-dried

October 02, 2003

WITH COLLEGE COSTS rising faster than family income and inflation, lawmakers should shore up and fully fund the federal Pell Grant program.

Instead, some would gamble with the proven benefit of this tuition aid, which helps 4.8 million low-income students earn diplomas and certificates: These policy-makers would like to "improve" Pell Grants by offering only two years of aid instead of four, or by heaping on aid in the freshman year, then reducing it through the senior year, presumably to be replaced by loans or work.

Proponents call this "front-loading" and theorize this would help the students persist through first-year struggles to graduation day. For some families, spreading aid this way may mean assuming less debt.

The proposal would make two-year career and community colleges ever more attractive, as a healthy Pell Grant could cover most of the expense. It's also seen by some lawmakers as a possible way to stretch the $11 billion program without spending more.

Here's another image that the front-load jargon evokes: washed up. That's where the disadvantaged student who perseveres past sophomore year could find his college career if lawmakers shorten the grants. Four-year colleges fear losing the students; they claim they'd be unable to replace the aid. Students would be hit at both ends, with grants lapsing while they greet no-end-in-sight tuition hikes.

What's not broken, however, needs no repair. A federal study completed last year shows no statistically significant difference between Pell Grant students and nonrecipients when it comes to completing college: It may take poor students longer and many may need academic remediation, but when determined, they finish. Thus it would seem the current Pell Grant configuration works just fine. Would shifting the aid reduce the number of poor students who do drop out, or simply postpone the risk?

The nation's financial aid administrators say a well-constructed pilot project in selected schools is needed to test the theories, and determine who, if anyone, would benefit. That way, future federal policy would be based on facts instead of spin.

Lawmakers busy at work on the Higher Education Act should heed this recommendation, and turn their energy to program reforms and appropriations that would improve grant maximums and afford more Americans access to higher education.

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