Education Department Issues Criteria for “Rigorous” Curriculum
Students attending underachieving high schools
may be adversely affected
By Charles Dervarics
Students at minority-serving colleges and universities are among the primary targets of a new $4.5-billion financial aid windfall. But the program’s focus on merit-based aid — plus lingering concerns about implementation — may mean a bumpy ride ahead for students and colleges this year.
Congress last winter approved funding for the new Academic Competitiveness and SMART grants, which reward needy students with strong academic records. Competitiveness grants are open to freshmen and sophomores who received a “rigorous” curriculum while in high school, while SMART grants would go to juniors and seniors with a B average and a major in math, science, engineering or certain foreign languages.
While the target audience is low-income, Pell Grant-eligible students, critics say the legislation is vague, while the emphasis on merit criteria is a sea change from the federal government’s need-based financial aid system.
“This is the result of writing legislation in the wee hours of the night,” says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
While federal merit-based aid is common at the graduate level, it is
unusual for the government to take this approach with undergraduates, contends Nassirian. And he adds that many low-income students may attend under-achieving high schools that do not offer a “rigorous” curriculum.
Lawmakers have endorsed this new funding even though the regular Pell Grant has been frozen at $4,050 for the past four years. Critics say the $4.5 billion could be used to raise the maximum Pell Grant.
“With Academic Competitiveness and SMART grants, we have two new tools to encourage students to take — and schools to offer — the right courses to prepare students to enter and thrive in college,” says U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.
The Department of Education issued criteria in early May describing how it will define a “rigorous” high school curriculum for the Academic Competitiveness grants, which provide up to $750 for freshmen and up to $1,300 for sophomores. The Education Department outlined four immediate options for student eligibility. Students with an advanced or honors high school diploma or who qualify as State Scholars will be eligible. Thirty-five states currently offer such programs. Students in other states can become eligible if their grades are similar to State Scholar standards or if they score well on Advanced Placement tests.
Of the $4.5 billion approved for the two programs over the next five years, the Education Department expects to award nearly $800 million in grants for the upcoming semester.
The department so far has done a “creditable job” of dealing with the new law, Nassirian says. But he said the programs may result in watered-down high school curricula rather than the increased rigor many K-12 educators seek.
“There is a financial incentive for states to identify many of its high school programs as rigorous even if they are not,” he says. The whole process “may run at a counter purpose to high school reform.”
About 425,000 college students may be eligible for the Academic Competitiveness grant, says Tom Luce, assistant education secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development.
SMART grants for juniors and seniors are open to computer and engineering majors as well as those studying Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Russian and 13 other languages deemed “critical need” by the Bush administration.
Through SMART grants, needy students can obtain an extra $4,000 a year in addition to regular financial aid. Luce estimates that about 80,000 college students may qualify for this program.
“We have been faced with a very short time frame here,” he says. “It’s a mammoth task to get all this processed.”
Nassirian predicted that historically Black colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges have much at stake as these programs take hold. “Minority-serving institutions are major beneficiaries if [federal leaders] implement this the right way,” he says.
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