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Grants Given, and Taken Away

August 25, 2006

Congress seemed to have students just like Brandon Struthers in mind when it created the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retaining Talent (SMART) Grants last winter. The grants were designed to help American colleges produce more graduates in high-demand fields such as physics, engineering and critical foreign languages, and Struthers, who is majoring in electrical engineering with a minor in mathematics, would appear to be just about perfect.

In many ways he is. But because of significant confusion over the rules for the new program, he was one of 150 students at Utah State University who were informed last week that they were in fact ineligible for the $4,000 grants the university had offered them just a week earlier. It turned out that the students had all taken too many credit hours to qualify under the new program's unusual way of defining an "academic year," which ties a student's year in college precisely to the number of academic credits he or she has accumulated.

The SMART Grants are available to juniors and seniors, but because Struthers and the others had taken more than 120 credits, they were no longer considered to be eligible. Utah State awarded SMART Grants to another 300 students who are eligible to keep them.

"The problem with this regulation is that it is way too low for my degree," Struthers said in an e-mail message, noting that a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering at Utah State requires 133 credits, and that after this fall, his ninth semester in college, he is set to graduate with 143.

"I have not floundered about through college," added Struthers, who has a wife and 8-month-old son. "Rather, I have been on track, taking only courses toward my degree and minor. It seems wrong and contradictory to deny aid designed for a student in my position because of a wrongly set credit limit. This credit limit should at least be the minimum amount of credits required to graduate in the degree."

In one way, the situation at Utah State, which was first reported by the Deseret Morning News, may be an anomaly; Steve Sharp, the associate director of financial aid there, acknowledges that the university awarded SMART Grants to its students earlier than most other institutions, "because we were trying to get this money out to them before the school year started, to be of the most help we could.

"It's a classic case," he added, "of no good deed going unpunished."

But Sharp and other experts on financial aid also say the Utah State situation is a perfect (and painful) example of what's wrong with the SMART Grant Program and its companion program for freshmen and sophomores, the Academic Competitiveness Grants -- and, particularly, with the excessively rushed and messy way Congress created the new programs and the Education Department is trying to put them in place. Last week, numerous higher education associations, individual colleges and others offered comments, many of them critical, about multiple aspects of the Education Department's plans for instituting the new programs -- including the proposed definition of the academic year.

"I imagine screw-ups like this are occurring on other campuses as well," Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said of the Utah State mess. "The law that created ACG/SMART Grants is very poorly drafted, and the department has unfortunately compounded the problems with some of its regulatory decisions."

Nassirian added: "It is not surprising at all that campus officials are confused about how to implement the programs and who is eligible and for how much. What’s worse is that even where no problems register today in real time, we are likely to have all kinds of program reviews and audit exceptions down the road when the Monday morning quarterbacking begins in earnest."

Oops, Never Mind

Sharp and other officials at Utah State thought they were doing the right thing. They had pored over the interim final regulations that the Education Department published in July to carry out the two new grant programs, and they had participated in "every training session, every Web session" available to them in the weeks that followed.

With the start of the academic year just a few weeks away, Utah State officials hoped to help their students get their financial aid situations in order, so on Wednesday, August 8, the university informed 450 students that they had met the various requirements for a SMART Grant, including achieving a minimum grade point average of 3.0 and majoring in one of the eligible fields, and would receive grants of as much as $4,000.

But just five days later, on Monday, August 13, Utah State officials participated in yet another conversation between financial aid officers from Utah colleges and Education Department officials, Sharp said. It was during that discussion that it became clear to Utah State officials for the first time that under the department's proposed method of determining what academic year a student is in -- which considers a student's academic year to have ended after he or she has taken a certain number of academic credits -- put them beyond the number of total credits that eligible students can accumulate to count as college seniors.

The next day, the financial aid office sent a follow-up e-mail to a third of the prospective recipients saying that they would not receive the grants after all. Many of the students were resigned to the shift, Sharp said, but some, not surprisingly, were furious. "When you raise someone's expectations, and then say a week later, No, not really, that's pretty jarring," he said.

Sharp said he knows that Utah State's rush to get its financial aid awards finished in time for the fall contributed the problem. "If we had waited a week to award [these students, they] would never have known" that they had received them. And while he disagrees with the "academic year" definition the Education Department used -- "they took the most restrictive definition they could find, a matter of the legal eagles believing that's what the law required," he said -- he doesn't particularly blame its officials for the problems with carrying out the grants. "They're doing the best they can, with the short time frame they've been given."

He added: "If there's any blame here, I think it's Congress trying to compress the time frame" for putting the two new programs into effect.

On that, most higher education officials and college lobbyists agree. They also agree that Utah State is unlikely to stand alone in its difficulty with the two new programs.

"This is likely to be the first of many examples of the difficulties campuses face in trying to implement the ACG/SMART grant rules," said Becky Timmons, director of federal relations at the American Council on Education. "It gives street credibility to the comments filed by higher eduction groups last week." 

An Education Department spokeswoman said late Thursday that department officials were still gathering information about the Utah State situation to see if anything could be done about it.

 

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