Top students, critical classes drive 2 new federal grants



Attention college students: Was your high school academic program tougher than usual? Or, are you majoring in engineering, genetics or Urdu?

If so, you just might be eligible for one of two new federal grants designed to spur U.S. students to become more competitive in math, science and foreign languages.

The Academic Competitiveness grant and the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retail Talent (SMART) grant together will award $790 million in the coming school year.

Grants range from $750 to $4,000. Money essentially will be given to lower-income undergraduate students who have shown academic merit. It is believed to be the first time that the federal government has tied need and merit together, financial aid experts said.

The Department of Education estimates that 500,000 students will be eligible for the grants, which do not have to be repaid as student loans do. If it turns out that eligible candidates outnumber available funding, the size of the grants will be reduced.

The grants -- totaling $4.5 billion over five years -- are part of legislation signed into law in February.

The Department of Education released guidance on eligibility last month, and since then financial aid officers have been scrambling to learn what they can about the grants and who will get them.

"We're reading, listening and going to conferences and trying to gather as much data as we can," said Ellen Frishberg, director of student financial services for the Johns Hopkins University. She estimates that Hopkins students will receive $300,000 from the two programs.

The Academic Competitiveness grant -- with 420,000 potential recipients -- targets freshmen and sophomores. The SMART grant -- with 80,000 eligible students -- is geared for juniors and seniors. They share some of the same requirements.

For instance, both grants require that students also be eligible for Pell grants, which are awarded to lower-income students.

The formula to qualify for a Pell grant is complicated, but typically a student whose family income is $40,000 or less will be eligible, said Ron Shunk, director of financial aid at Hood College.

Families with income of $50,000 to $60,000 may be eligible for Pell grants if more than one child is in college at the same time, Shunk said.

Students must be full time. And they must be U.S. citizens. Frishberg said this is the first time the federal government has required citizenship for aid. Permanent residents -- noncitizens permitted to live in the United States permanently -- won't qualify, as they do for other federal aid, she said. If not for the citizenship requirement, Hopkins students would be eligible for an additional $200,000 in grant money, she said.

Despite the grants' restrictions, Frishberg added, "Any time I can get more grant money in the hands of needy students, I am happy."

Among the specifics of each grant:

The Academic Competitiveness grant will award $750 to a freshman and $1,300 to a sophomore. Students must have completed a "rigorous" high school program. States, school districts and other local agencies are asked to submit names of rigorous school programs to the Education Department.

Sophomores receiving a grant must have at least a 3.0 grade point average on a scale of 4.

To qualify for a SMART grant worth $4,000 a year, juniors and seniors must major in math, engineering or the sciences, including biochemistry, microbiology, astronomy and chemistry.

The grant also rewards students majoring in so-called "critical foreign languages," including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Hindi, Arabic, Iranian, Turkish and Pakistan's national language -- Urdu.

Recipients must have a 3.0 grade point average in courses required for their major.

Valerie Smith, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said students who have filled out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid for the coming year will be notified next month if they may be eligible for a grant. Families who have not filled out the form but think they may qualify for a grant should fill out the FAFSA before the end of this month, she said.

Grant application information will be posted next month on the department's Web site,

With the academic year fast approaching, financial aid directors say there are a lot of details that need to be worked out. For instance, they say, what is considered a "rigorous" high school program? How many academic hours must a student have to be considered, say, a junior or senior?

Purdue University, known for its engineering program, figures its students may be eligible for an additional $2.5 million, said Joyce Hall, executive director of financial aid. The Indiana school, which starts processing loans this month for classes starting in mid-August, may end up correcting a lot of loan packages later if more grant information isn't available soon, she said.

"I don't remember a summer with so many unknowns," Hall said. "That's why I call it the long, hot summer."

Hood's Shunk predicts, "It will get pieced together and some [students] will not end up seeing the benefit until second semester."

He added that often happens when aid programs are introduced, and sometimes it takes a couple of years to work out the kinks.

That may be the case this time, too. Still, students and their parents should be on the lookout for grant information this summer so they won't miss out on money later.

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