Fleshing Out the New Financial Aid Programs

Education Department defines what students must do to qualify for Academic Competitiveness and SMART Grants.
May 3, 2006

As many as 500,000 students could be eligible next year for two new federal grant programs aimed at increasing the flow of low-income students into college and ultimately into scientific disciplines, U.S. Education Department officials said Tuesday in laying out temporary guidelines for how students can qualify for the programs.

The new programs, the Academic Competitiveness Grants and the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent Grants, were created when Congress passed and President Bush signed the Deficit Reduction Act this winter.

While many college officials have applauded the basic purpose of the grants, others have expressed unhappiness about certain aspects of the programs -- most notably that the grants are available only to full-time college students who just graduated high school, excluding many older and part-time students, and that students must maintain a 3.0 grade point average in college to earn the grants as sophomores, juniors or seniors. The academic requirements mark a significant departure from past federal financial aid policy, by instituting a merit-based component into programs that have traditionally focused on financial need alone, a trend critics have bemoaned but supporters enthusiastically endorsed.

Because department officials must carry out the law as Congress enacted it, the guidelines released on Tuesday by design do nothing to alter those perceived flaws in the programs. But college financial aid officers and many other people have eagerly awaited the guidelines nonetheless, because so many details about the programs, which Congress created and passed more or less on the fly in December, remain murky.

Interest is high because the program will make about $790 million in new aid available to students this year; the Academic Competitiveness Grants are valued at up to $750 for first-year college students and $1,300 for second-year students, while the SMART Grants for juniors and seniors in certain high-demand fields are worth up to $4,000 each.

Since time was short between when President Bush enacted the programs in February and when they take effect this fall, the guidelines released Tuesday were drafted outside the normal "negotiated rule making" process for crafting federal regulations and will set the program's rules only for two transitory years. But they offer the department's initial interpretations of several key elements of the programs, such as what qualifies as a "rigorous" high school curriculum -- which recipients must have completed to be eligible for the grants -- and for which academic majors students can receive the grants ( a list of which the department also released Tuesday). Some state officials and conservative groups have expressed wariness that the legislation could give the federal government the authority to set curriculums in their states.
The guidelines the department released Tuesday offer several ways that schools and students can show that they've taken a rigorous high school curriculum. For the 2006-7 academic year, students can do so by:

  • Attaining a diploma through one of 19 state advanced or honors program that the education secretary has already recognized. A list of the programs appears here, but the programs are in the following states: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming.
  • Earning a degree through a high school that is part of the State Scholars Initiative, a program created by Congress, financed by the Education Department and now administered by the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education. The program is now operating in 14 states, with 8 more about to be added, according to department officials.
  • Completing a high school curriculum similar to that used in the State Scholars Initiative, which calls for four years of English and at least three years of mathematics, three years of science, three years of social sciences, and one year of a foreign language.
  • Achieving a score of at least three on at least two Advanced Placement exams or a score of two or above on at least two International Baccalaureate exams.

In addition, states may petition the department by June 1 if they wish to propose an alternative way that state residents can show that they've completed a rigorous curriculum, which department officials say they would assess within a month's time.

"We believe we've set up enough options that the vast number of students would have had the opportunity" to qualify for the grants, said Tom Luce, deputy assistant secretary of education for policy and planning.

Luce and David Dunn, the acting under secretary of education and chief of staff to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, estimated in rough terms that about 425,000 students could be eligible for the Academic Competitiveness Grants in 2006-7, and about 80,000 for the SMART Grants. Luce said he suspected that more people would qualify under the third criterion, which sets out the minimum number of years students must have taken in certain subjects, than under any other standard.

The department officials also said they expected the academic standards that students would have to meet in the third and fourth years of the programs to be more rigorous, to try to prod schools and students alike to offer ever-more-rigorous curriculums.

College officials said they welcomed the new guidelines in part so that campus administrators and prospective students could begin to get a handle on an important but "messy and complex" new programs, as Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, called them. He said the department's guidelines, which were helpful, had also begun to reveal certain problems in the underlying legislation, which show what happens when "a quickly drafted piece of legislation is carried out on an unrealistic time frame."

Hartle noted, for instance, that the list of majors for which students could receive SMART Grants included life sciences such as biochemistry but not health sciences, such as nursing, despite significant shortages of nurses in the United States that Congress has sought to attack in other pieces of legislation. So a student who majors in biochemistry planning to go to medical school could receive a SMART Grant, but a premed student could not.


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