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Summit Produces New Ideas For Improving Access For Needy, Minority Students

The nation must create a “sense of urgency” to increase need-based financial aid through a range of new policies, including incentive grants for colleges and universities that effectively serve low-income students, a coalition of leaders said at a national higher education summit Thursday in Washington, D.C.

Along with colleges and the private sector, government must provide a strong “net increase” in need-based aid, said Tally Hart, senior advisor for economic access at The Ohio State University and chair of a summit policy group charged with financial aid improvements.

The goal, she said, is “not to shift numbers among programs but to have real growth in serving needy students.” New policies should include:

·         State or federal incentive grants to colleges that enroll, retain and graduate low-income students;

·         A new “Counselor Corps” funded by the federal government to go into high schools to provide college and career counseling; and

·         New financial incentives for states to increase business investment in need-based financial aid.

Students need support services as well as financial help to succeed in higher education. “Money alone won’t do it,” she said. Policymakers also should “avoid pitting groups against each other” in this debate, to minimize conflicts between low-income students and their middle-class counterparts.

The financial aid work group was among five that met during open- and closed-door sessions at the Education Department-sponsored summit, A Test of Leadership. Attendees included many members of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which issued recommendations last year. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings called the summit to add more specific details to the commission’s blueprint.

In addition to need-based aid, other work groups focused on accreditation, affordability, adult learners and alignment of K-12 and higher education.

“Higher education itself needs to change,” said Gov. Don Carcieri, R-Rhode Island, who led the discussion on better alignment of K-12 and higher education. Among other recommendations, his group called for a public report card that tracks the progress of incoming freshmen at a college from the time they enroll until graduation.

In her address to summit attendees, Spellings focused many of her comments on the challenges facing many low-income and minority youth.

“If you’re White you have a pretty good chance of getting to college, and if you’re an African-American student, and particularly an African-American male student, you don’t,” Spellings said. “Our system does a good job of serving more privileged students.”

While more financial aid may help increase access, the secretary also called for more accountability. She said the Education Department is awarding grants to Florida, Minnesota and Kentucky for consumer information pilot programs that will make detailed higher education information more available to families.

Among other objectives, these consumer efforts may help families identify the most affordable colleges as well as those with “the best success” graduating African American students, she said.

“America’s universities have long been the envy of the world. But the data show that we are in danger of losing that position,” Spellings added.

Department officials said they will continue discussions from this one-day summit at a series of “mini-summits” in June. Tentative locations for these meetings are Atlanta, Boston, Phoenix, Seattle and Kansas City.

–Charles Dervarics

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