YES, THERE are inequities in the way some federal aid for needy students is divided among the nation's colleges. But rather than come up with a solution, Congress has just stirred the pot.
A recent proposal from House Republicans would redistribute $1.7 billion for three campus-based aid programs -- federal work study, Perkins loans and supplemental educational opportunity grants. The stated goal is to ensure that more aid gets to schools where there are many low-income students.
Supporters of the plan assumed this meant shifting dollars from expensive four-year colleges to more affordable community colleges and trade schools. And true to projections, some four-year colleges would lose some aid dollars while some community colleges and for-profit colleges would gain under this proposal, a recent analysis shows. However, to everyone's surprise, in Maryland and some other regions, the proposal appears to rob Peter to pay Paul.
Potential big losers here would include Coppin State University, Baltimore City Community College, Towson University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore, according to analysis by the American Council on Education published this month in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Potential winners would include the pricier Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, College Park and Morgan State University.
How can that be? The existing funding system favored colleges that were longtime participants in the programs with guaranteed levels of funding. Many are colleges in the Northeast, and many are historically black colleges. Newer colleges and new participants split the leftovers, which didn't seem to them -- or to the nation's financial aid administrators -- to be a "fair" share.
To correct this inequity, the lawmakers have proposed eliminating the guarantees. But judging from the potential impact in Maryland, they need to revisit the formula they're considering and come up with a different definition of "need." Otherwise, at least in Maryland, colleges with very high tuition appear to draw federal aid away from schools that traditionally attract more low-income students.
We're all for fairness, but this proposal makes as many problems as it claims to solve. Some grants might have to shrink, and some colleges worry they'll have a hard time predicting awards year after year because access to the federal funds would be affected by fluctuating enrollment and tuition. Younger schools in the South and West would benefit at the expense of older schools in the North and historically black colleges, analysts also predict.
Bottom line: It would make much more sense to put more money in the pot than to stir up ill will with new rationing -- if in fact the goal is to help more students. The real challenge is how to meet the growing need.
How about this radical idea: Over time and with care, phase out these comparatively tiny programs and invest the money in the federal financial-aid giant, the Pell Grant. This need-based program stretches to serve more than 2 million students, with awards that have failed to keep pace with inflation and tuition. The Pell Grants could use a boost bigger than Congress to date has been willing to fund: Increasing the size of its awards would reduce the need for the smaller, campus-based supplemental programs.