Challenge Grant Program Clears House Committee Hurdle
WASHINGTON — A new multimillion-dollar program that Congres-sional Black Caucus members have deemed a priority has moved a step closer to reality.
The college completion challenge grant program, proposed by President Clinton and U.S. Reps. William Clay, D-Mo., and Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., cleared a critical hurdle late last month with a favorable vote by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The Caucus has made the program a priority because it would allow the neediest students to breach the current federal student-aid ceiling.
The committee unanimously approved a bill that would expand the federal TRIO Student Support Services program to include such a plan of action, which would increase support services for needy students as well as provide them with additional grant money.
Among other provisions, the challenge grant program would break new ground by allowing low-income students to receive federal grants above and beyond the maximum Pell grants currently available.
In his January announcement of the plan, which could help up to 18,000 disadvantaged students a year, Clinton contended that “we haven’t truly opened the doors to college if our neediest students do not stay and complete their educations.”
“This program is going to become law this year,” Fattah said following the recent House committee action. “It is the first major effort in terms of retention.” The full House should pass the authorizing language in June, and he is hopeful the Senate will do the same before it adjourns for the year.
According to Fattah, the completion grant program will complement the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs he helped develop . “This is a body of work,” he says. “Our goal is getting people aware of college and then retaining them through graduation.”
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education indicate that 37 percent of students who pursue a college education drop out before earning a certificate, a two-year or four-year degree. A 1995 study by the General Accounting Office concluded that providing additional financial aid to students during their critical first two years can cut the dropout rate for low-income students by as much as 23 percent.
Colleges that apply for the completion grants would pledge to cover one-third of the costs of the programs they propose. Although institutions without existing TRIO programs could apply, they would already have to be providing student-support services — such as tutoring, help with course selection and financial aid and career counseling — to low-income students.
The bill approved by the House committee provides the actual language required for TRIO to offer the program. Separate federal funding would be required, but the House and Senate already are on record as favoring the $35 million that President Clinton proposed for the initiative last winter.
The plan is part of a package of amendments to the Higher Education Act, which was last rewritten by Congress in 1998. Most sections of the package serve to clarify provisions included in the last higher education reauthorization bill.
Another major provision of the bill would make it less likely that low-income students would have to repay their Pell grants if they drop out of school. Under the 1998 Higher Education Act, students could have to repay significant chunks of their Pell grants if they do not finish their classes. Students would make repayments based on the amount of time they actually went to class.
But critics have complained that the repayment burden could prove onerous for low-income students, prompting them to stay away from college after one unsuccessful experience. College officials also argued the plan poses an administrative nightmare, requiring professors to take attendance on a daily basis.
The new proposal does not eliminate the repayment requirement but would ease some provisions for students and colleges. For example, students never would have to return more than 50 percent of grant funds, no matter when they left school. Students also would be permitted to delay repayments for at least six months after their withdrawal from school and could delay for a longer period if they move from full-time to half-time status.
In a key provision affecting the nation’s 3,500-plus public colleges, students also would not have to return any grant funds if the total amount owed is $50 or less.
Rep. William Goodling, R-Pa., chairman of the House committee, called the repayment proposal “one of the important provisions included in this bill.” Goodling’s committee approved the change, along with the college completion grant plan, on May 25.
Elsewhere, the bill would require colleges and universities to make several changes in their campus crime-prevention policies. For example, colleges in states that have already passed disclosure laws would have to reveal whether past sexual offenders are attending their institutions.
Colleges also would have to outline policies on how they would work with parents and local police to deal with cases of missing students. Another change would require colleges to disclose information about fire safety on campuses, including statistics on fires and false alarms.
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