In an Advertisement, Aid Experts Urge That Public Funds Be Shifted Toward Needy Students

 

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Thursday, March 8, 2001

In an Advertisement, Aid Experts Urge That Public Funds Be Shifted Toward Needy Students

 

By SARA HEBEL

 

Twenty prominent student-aid experts placed an advertisement in The New York Times on Wednesday to urge federal and state lawmakers, as well as colleges, to focus their aid policies on helping low- and moderate-income families instead of those who can afford to pay for a higher education.

 

The group -- which includes college presidents, professors, analysts of national higher-education policy, and other scholars -- outlines eight facts about access to college and three "policy implications" of their statement.

 

They argue that the nation has failed to close the college-enrollment gap that exists between students from low-income families and those from wealthier families, and that doing so should be the top priority of federal, state, and institutional aid policies.

Policy makers, they say, need to direct more money toward need-based aid, rather than to benefits -- like federal tuition tax credits and state prepaid tuition plans -- that mostly help people who would already be going to college.

 

"As scholars and policy analysts whose research has focused on higher education, we believe that our nation and our colleges and universities need to recommit to a fundamental statement that will foster a just and efficient allocation of public and private resources for higher education," reads the ad.

 

"Our purpose," the ad continues, "is to reaffirm public policies that will maximize the development of the individual talent of all

Americans and will strengthen the nation's economic security. We believe that in recent years the country has diverted attention, incentives, and revenues away from students and families with the greatest financial need."

 

The group also is mailing a copy of the statement in the newspaper ad to college presidents, members of Congress, some federal officials involved in setting education policy, governors, governors' education aides, and state lawmakers, according to

Patrick M. Callan, who is president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and who helped spearhead the advertising campaign.

 

He said the entire effort, including placing the ad and mailing materials, cost about $35,000. The campaign, which the group began working on last fall, was paid for entirely by grants from the Ford Foundation and the Nellie Mae Foundation.

 

Mr. Callan said the effort was not spurred by any particular event or policy. It grew, he said, from a general worry about how money for student aid was spent in the 1990's and the hope that a group of knowledgeable individuals -- who have varying views on other policy matters -- might be able to persuade people to take another look at shifting aid policy.

 

"There is a strong sense that in the 90's, the country seems to have ignored the evidence of the almost intractable gap between the low income and the high income," Mr. Callan said.

 

The ad specifically criticizes federal tuition tax credits, state prepaid-tuition programs, and federal tax benefits for education savings accounts as being "inefficient in that they subsidize college-going behavior that would occur in their absence."

 

It suggests that colleges and universities should concentrate their own financial aid on academically qualified but needy students and urges federal officials to make restoration of grant programs a priority instead of expanding loans for undergraduates or increasing tuition tax benefits for families.

 

Some of the experts who signed the ad also criticized the growth of merit-based scholarship programs in states. Gary A.

Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University, argued that those programs only exacerbate the inequities in higher education by diverting resources that could go to need-based aid to many families who can afford college on their own.

 

"We have allowed college to slip out of the reach of low-income children," said Mr. Orfield, who hopes the ad will help raise public awareness about the issue. "It seems to me that researchers in the academic world who know about this haven't done a good job communicating to the general public, or to policy makers."

 

Michael S. McPherson, the president of Macalester College, who also signed the ad, said he is hoping the ad might help raise interest in examining the issue, especially since it comes on the heels of a report released last month by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. That report concluded that the gap in the college-going rates between students from low-income families and those from high-income families is nearly as wide as it was three decades ago. (See an article from The Chronicle, March 2.)

 

Mr. McPherson said he and others would be willing to help out anyone who might be interested in setting up a government commission, consortium of institutions, or Congressional hearing to look more deeply into the issues the ad raises.

 

Higher-education officials had mixed reactions to the ad.

 

Lu Hardin, director of Arkansas' Higher Education Department, said he agreed with the ad's creators that the federal Hope and Lifetime Learning tax credits were "totally misguided" aid policy. The credits, which provide families up to $1,500 per year for college expenses, put money in families' pockets in the middle of the academic year, after taxes are paid. But students and families often need that money upfront, Mr. Hardin argues, so he fears that the federal aid does little to open up college access, particularly for low-income families who are the most cash-strapped.

 

However, Mr. Hardin also is an ardent defender of merit-based scholarships.

 

"Merit-based scholarships are important in that they drive behavior," he said, noting that in the years since Arkansas began awarding its Academic Challenge Scholarships in 1991, the percentage of high-school students taking a rigorous academic curriculum increased to 74 percent from 47 percent.

 

"You absolutely need scholarships that are sensitive to low-income families," Mr. Hardin said. "But you also have to encourage people to meet the core curriculum and work hard and reward that as well, and not discourage against it because of family income."

 

Copyright 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education