Administration: Front-Loading Will Ease Financial Burden on Poorer Students
WASHINGTON — The Clinton administration may revive a long-dormant idea that holds some appeal for advocates of students of color — the “front-loading” of financial aid to first- and second-year college students.
Under front-loading, the U.S. Department of Education would focus grant aid primarily on college freshmen and sophomores so they need not take out large loans early in their postsecondary careers.
Supporters say it would lessen the burden on low-income students during their first months of college, allowing them to focus mainly on academics. Because many students who drop out of college do so during their first two years, front-loading would allow those students to leave without massive debts that could prevent their return.
“If you drop out and have loans, you’ve got a big bill to pay,” says Dr. Henry Ponder, executive director of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.
Front-loading would require many disadvantaged students to take out loans in their junior and senior years, but advocates say those students would be on more secure footing — and closer to a degree — when they make that switch.
“If you can make it through the first two years, you’re likely to make it through the last two years,” Ponder says.
How seriously the administration will consider front-loading is still a matter of debate. White House officials have discussed a pilot program, though details of the experiment are not likely until the administration releases its 2001 budget next month.
One option under consideration, lobbyists say, is a plan to double the maximum Pell grant — from $3,300 to $6,600 — for first- and second-year students who attend colleges that participate in the pilot program. As a result, many students could forego loans during their freshmen and sophomore years.
Yet some higher education organizations are wary. The American Council on Education already has sent a letter to the administration questioning the move. It is particularly concerned about any pilot program that would divert money from other federal aid programs for needy students.
Any front-loading proposal from the Education Department likely would need approval from the Republican-dominated Congress, which has had strained ties with the education agency in recent years.
The concept of front-loading first emerged in the 1980s as college students began to take on large loans because of higher tuition and few gains in federal grant. Con-gress and advocates have examined the issue whenever the Higher Education Act comes up for reauthorization. But lawmakers have never amen-ded the act to permit such a program.
The last major discussion on front-loading came in 1995, when the U.S. General Accounting Office recommended a pilot program. Congress’ watchdog agency contends tuition is the main reason many low-income students drop out of school and that a test of front-loading could prompt some disadvantaged youth to continue their education.
But there is little concrete research to support the front-loading concept, says J. Noah Brown, director of public policy at the Association of Community College Trustees. “It’s an interesting theory,” Brown says, “but an untested one.”
Of particular concern to many educators is the notion that front-loading may not solve the retention problem — but simply push back the time at which a student leaves school.
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