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Proposed bill would tell poor students they are guaranteed college funds – Washington Update

With most lawmakers focusing on education tax breaks, one
Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) member is touting what he calls a
groundbreaking approach to financial aid that blends Pell Grants with
elements of successful philanthropy projects.

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) recently introduced legislation to create
a 21st Century Scholars Program, which borrows a page from philanthropy
in its basic premise: Low-income students can achieve and go to college
if they know that financial help is readily available.

Fattah’s plan is modeled after the “I Have a Dream” program of
businessman Eugene Lang in New York City a decade ago. Lang guaranteed
college tuition for a class of low-income sixth-grade students. Ninety
percent eventually earned high school diplomas up from a projected 25
percent without the guarantee — and 60 percent of the class also went
on to college.

The congressman’s bill would adapt this philosophy to the Pell
Grant program. By the time they go to high school, students in the
nation’s poorest districts would get formal notification from the
government that they are “guaranteed” four years of maximum Pell Grant
aid if they attend college.

Based on 1997 law, the bill would assure students of at least
$2,700 a year for four years. The notice would remain in the student’s
official record, and the Department of Education (ED) would provide
annual updates on maximum Pell Grants every year thereafter.

“It will provide Pell awards to people who would be eligible for
them anyway, but who might not have made it to college but for the
encouragement provided by this program,” Fattah said in introducing the
bill as H.R. 777.

These children already are in the eligible pool for future Pell
Grants, Fattah said. They simply need to know about the program as soon
as possible. Such youth typically “don’t consider postsecondary
education as one of their life options,” said a summary of the bill.

To qualify for the guarantee, students must attend a school where
the proportion of families in poverty exceeds 75 percent. Once they
meet this requirement, students and their parents or guardians would
receive correspondence from the Secretary of Education about their Pell

Students would be guaranteed either the maximum Pell award at the
time they leave grammar school or the Pell maximum when they begin
postsecondary education. The 21st Century Scholars also would become
automatically eligible for TRIO programs under the bill.

Federal grants are essential for low-income students, said Fattah,
noting that poor students rely on grants to cover 25 percent of college
tuition. Middle-income households depend on grants for only 2 percent
of tuition, while for upper-income families the rate is below 1 percent.

The congressman said his plan offers more for low-income students
than President Clinton’s proposed tax breaks, which include a $10,000
tuition tax deduction and a $1,500 annual scholarship for the first two
years of college.

“Approaches financed through the tax code will not benefit truly low-income families,” Fattah said.

Those earning less than $20,000 a year have little or no tax
liability, and would get few benefits from the tax deduction. Moreover,
most of these families would be eligible for a Pell Grant at or above
the $1,500 scholarship, which then may go to more affluent students.

However, President Bill Clinton has opened the door for major new
investments in education, which Fattah dubbed, “a new era of
commitment.” Nonetheless, he said, “It is also crucial that we leave no
child behind.”

The bill has picked up two senior Democrats as co-sponsors, Reps.
William Clay (D-Mo.) and Dale Kildee (D-Mich.). Clay is senior Democrat
on the House Education and the Workforce Committee and also a CBC
member. Kildee is the Democrats’ third most senior member on the House
education panel and a former chairman of its subcommittee on elementary
and secondary education. Fattah’s bill was referred to the Education
and the Workforce panel.

As senior Democrat on the education panel, Clay also recently
introduced President Clinton’s education tax plans in the House. That
bill, the Hope and Opportunity for Postsecondary Education Act of 1997,
also was referred to the Committee on Education and the Workforce.

For more information on H.R. 777, contact Rep. Fattah’s office at: (202) 225-4001.

RELATED ARTICLE: Top Universities Say Diversity Is Important for Education

Sixty-two top research universities said that diversity is “a value
that is central to the very concept of education in our institutions.”

The statement was adopted at the annual meeting here of the
Association of American Universities (AAU), the membership organization
of leading public and private research universities such as Columbia,
Harvard, Yale, Brandeis, Rutgers, the University of Virginia, the
University of Washington, the University of Southern California.

The AAU statement said that the member universities would continue
to admit students “consistent with the broad principles of equal
opportunity and equal protection that take many factors and
characteristics into account — including ethnicity, race, and gender.”

The action was taken in response to a number of legal decisions
which have said that race could not be used as a factor in admission to
public universities.

“We speak first and foremost as educators,” the statement says. “We
believe that our students benefit significantly from education that
takes place within a diverse setting. In the course of their university
education, our students encounter and learn from others who have
backgrounds and characteristics very different from their own. As we
seek to prepare students for life in the twenty-first century, the
educational value of such encounters will become more important, not
less, than in the past.”

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