Lawmakers Consider Shifting Aid From Ivies to Public Colleges
By Garry Boulard
A long-simmering, trans-regional dispute is pitting mostly Southern and Western Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives against their Republican and Democratic counterparts from the East over the way campus-based federal aid is distributed.
Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., have promised to introduce legislation before the current session of Congress expires that would dramatically shift the way Washington disperses its large federal-aid programs to colleges and universities.
“The Republican leadership on the committee has said that at some point they will introduce reauthorization bills for student financial-aid programs that will look at a phase-down of those base guarantees that are currently in place,” said Alexa Marrero, spokeswoman for chairman Boehner, referring to the system of set-asides that has allowed some of the country’s most prestigious — and primarily Eastern — universities to reap hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid.
“Their goal is to move toward a more fair formula, more of a fair share, distributing aid based on the number of students in financial aid,” Marrero said.
If such legislation clears Congress and receives President Bush’s signature, it could mean millions more not only for state and private universities in the South and West, but also the nation’s community colleges — all of which would get more money under a different funding equation.
“It would very much be a good thing for us if it happens,” said David Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, “because it would increase the funds coming to community colleges, particularly with the Supplemental Educational Opportunity grant program.”
Critics of the way federal money is currently distributed to the nation’s schools include Bush, who has described the system as inequitable and called for revising the spending formulas. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) also is urging an end to the system, suggesting instead a gradual phase-out of the base guarantee beginning in fiscal year 2004 and decreasing by 20 percent every year up to 2009, when the program would finally be ended altogether.
On a Web site for its members, NASFAA said the campus-based allotment formulas “have suppressed the allocation of funds to institutions with a growing student population and do not reasonably reflect the proportions of needy students at many institutions. A gradual phase-out of the base guarantee will permit a redistribution of funds to reflect more accurately the distribution of student need among institutions.”
One thing that neither critics nor supporters of the current system of distribution can deny is the positive financial effect it has had on universities such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale, all of which received five to 12 times the median amount for each financial aid applicant, according to a New York Times study published last November. The figures cited in the study were based on the 2000-2001 academic year.
In a follow-up to that report, the Boston Globe in March noted that Massachusetts, which has 80 private two- and four-year colleges, received $80 million in SEOG, Perkins Loans and federal funding for work-study jobs in the 2002-2003 academic year.
But at the same time, the newspaper noted, “some of the fastest-growing states, with college enrollments predicted to climb rapidly over the next decade, received less. Florida got $71 million, Arizona got $24 million, New Mexico $11.5 million and Nevada $4 million.”
Of those four states, Florida and Arizona have populations that exceed that of Massachusetts, with Florida’s population being more than twice as large.
Critics of the current funding system say federal campus-based aid, which currently exceeds $1.7 billion, found its way to the Eastern schools because for years it had the support of powerful Eastern senators such as Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who, in the early 1990s was chairman of the committee that authorized funds for higher education; and Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., for whom Pell Grants were named.
It was, in fact, Kennedy and Pell who devised the campus-based formula known as the “base guarantee” during the Nixon administration, providing colleges today the same share of money they received in the early 1970s — no matter how many needy students are on their campuses.
The move toward altering or eliminating entirely such base guarantees has sparked debate not only in Congress, but also on campuses across the country. Democrats and some college lobbyists have called the administration’s emphasis on reallocating funds misdirected, noting that Bush in this year’s budget offered no increases for either supplemental grants or work-study, on top of a cut in Perkins loans for 2005.
Those critics say Bush and the Republican leadership should be more concerned with finding more money for the nation’s college students instead of simply moving around the funds that already exist.
But advocates of changing the system also have won some surprising converts, including the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper at Harvard, which said in an editorial on March 26: “Although Harvard and schools like it will lose, the system as it stands is blatantly unfair; reform is a bigger priority.”
At the same time, political reporters have noted that a majority of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce represents states far to the west of the Ivy League schools and may be flexing political muscle that’s grown since the 1970s.
Inevitably, the debate also has been steeped in rich vs. poor themes, particularly after the New York Times survey appeared under the headline “Rich Colleges Receiving Richest Share of U.S. Aid.”
Baime of the AACC thinks that is an unfortunate spin. “It should not be painted in terms of rich colleges vs. the others,” he said. “I think it is more a story of colleges that have been around for a long time and how savvy they have been in the way they have acquired these funds.”
Baime added that the nation’s community colleges currently receive between 3 percent and 15 percent of federal campus-based aid: 15 percent for both work-study and SEOG money, and 3 percent for Perkins loans.
House leaders say they’re not yet decided when a bill dealing with the base-guarantee system will be introduced. “But we are moving in that direction,” Marrero said. “We just don’t have a specific date.”
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