Congress Looking to Ease Burden on Low-Income Students
Lesser-publicized elements of College Cost Reduction Act would
benefit part-time students.
Part-time and community college students — who often face some of the greatest barriers to persistence in college — will be among the major winners if higher education legislation on Capitol Hill becomes law.
Legislation in the House and Senate has attracted widespread support because it could produce dramatic gains for low-income students by cutting federal subsidies to lenders and targeting the savings toward financial aid. But the College Cost Reduction Act that recently cleared the House also has other little-known benefits for those often hard pressed to afford higher education.
One provision in the bill would open up the new Academic Competitiveness Grant program to part-time students. This program is geared to low-income, Pell Grant-eligible students who had taken a “rigorous” curriculum while in high school.
Under the program, students could obtain $750 for the first year of college and up to $1,300 for the second year if they maintain a high GPA. But the statute creating the program limited eligibility to full-time students, and many higher education groups had identified changes as a key priority.
“The program needs to be available to all students regardless of their status,” says Rebecca Thompson, legislative director for the United States Student Association.
“It should be available to every student, whether they are full or part time.”
The bill also would open the competitiveness grant to students in certificate programs as well as students who are legal U.S. residents, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. When enacted, the program offered eligibility only to U.S. citizens, a provision that has drawn criticism from many groups.
“It represented the first time we had a financial aid program based on citizenship,” says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “It’s an exclusion that has kept some students out of the program.”
Another provision of the bill would eliminate the Pell Grant tuition sensitivity provision, a rule that has deprived community college students — particularly in California — from receiving larger
Pell Grants. While these students attend relatively low-cost institutions, they incur other significant costs of attendance such as fees, books, supplies, transportation and housing. The low cost of their colleges, however, affects their Pell awards.
The tuition sensitivity provision “has prevented students attending the least expensive community colleges from qualifying for the maximum grant,” says Dr. George R. Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges.
While any change to the 1992 rule still would require the Senate’s assent, that chamber is considering separate legislation that also would eliminate the practice.
The provision is believed to affect a large share of the 260,000 California community college students who receive Pell Grants, and critics say it soon may affect more students in other states.
Passed by the House in mid-July, the College Cost Reduction Act also would provide a $500 increase in the maximum Pell Grant over the next five years.
Similar to other provisions of the bill, the Pell increase will open additional doors for low-income students.
Also, along with cuts in lender subsidies, the bill would cut interest rates on student loans in half, to 3.4 percent, over five years.
Other provisions would forgive loans for students who enter public service professions and award additional aid to students who agree to teach in public schools.
The Senate is considering similar legislation but would add another new financial aid program for low-income students. Authored by U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the legislation would create a new program of “Promise Grants” for the neediest students. Funding would begin with $2.6 billion in fiscal year 2008, with eligibility focused on those already eligible for Pell Grants.
This provision was pending in legislation on the Senate floor as Diverse went to press.
Ultimately, a House/Senate conference committee would develop a final higher education plan, but most advocates are optimistic of final action soon on many of these provisions.
“This isn’t the end of the story,” Nassirian says, but it represents a significant victory after many years of stagnant funding. “We’re delighted that they have provided more aid to students without increasing the deficit.”
For community college students, the College Cost Reduction Act would:
– increase the income protection allowance, which reduces the “work penalty” for students who need to work to defray college expenses.
– offer year-round Pell Grants to part-time as well as full-time students,
a benefit for those who take several classes regularly throughout the year.
– authorize new funds for predominantly Black institutions as well as colleges serving a large number of Asian and Pacific Islander students.
– Charles Dervarics
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