Are Students Getting SMART?

Early numbers suggest students are receiving new federal grants, but officials on many campuses ask if aid is serving needy.
December 14, 2006

From the very start, many college financial aid officers and higher education lobbyists disliked the two new student grant programs that the federal government created earlier this year. To those true believers who think federal student aid should start and stop with need-based aid -- particularly the Pell Grant -- the fact that Congress planned to pour billions in newly freed-up federal funds into programs based in part on academic merit, and to limit the programs to full-time students who are U.S. citizens, seemed ill-advised.

Those philosophical objections were compounded by the problems that many college administrators had with how the U.S. Education Department decided to carry out the programs.

In the months since the programs took effect, the rumbling from many financial aid offices was that colleges were having trouble finding enough students who met all the qualifications for the Academic Competitiveness and National Science and Mathematics Access to Retaining Talent (SMART) Grants, which are designed to attract more students from low-income families into college and, specifically, into high-demand science, technology and language fields.

The programs are available only to American citizens who have taken a rigorous high school curriculum; attend college full time and directly out of high school, maintain a 3.0 college grade point average and, in the case of the SMART Grant, are enrolled in one of a specific set of majors. Some large universities may have many students who meet all those criteria, but financial aid officials at numerous other institutions -- particularly two-year colleges and those that focus on the liberal arts -- have reported a dearth of eligible candidates.

“I’m grateful for any federal funding, but in terms of affecting large numbers of students, it hasn’t had a huge impact on our campus,” says David Gelinas, director of financial aid at University of the South, who notes that his liberal-arts institution has had about three dozen Academic Competitiveness Grant recipients, and four SMART Grant winners. Laurie Wolf, executive dean of student services at Des Moines Area Community College, says that about 260, or less than 1 percent, of her institution’s 28,000 students qualified for the competitiveness grants, which are for first- or second-year students. "That's just not a lot of students," she says.

Education Department officials have acknowledged concerns along those lines. At the Federal Student Aid conference in Las Vegas late last month, department officials noted that data they had seen at that point on the number of students participating in the new programs “seemed low,” and asked the financial aid officers in attendance why that might be so. “We heard a lot of the same things: a lot of the students are part time; or aren't in the right majors, or aren’t U.S. citizens,” says David Bergeron, director of the policy and budget development staff for the Education Department’s Office of Postsecondary Education.

To some critics of the two new programs, the anecdotal sense that the programs are being underutilized confirmed their suspicions that the programs had been both poorly conceived and carried out thus far. But Bergeron and other department officials have warned that drawing such conclusions would be premature until actual data on usage of the two programs are available.

This week, the department released some initial projections that its officials say suggest that usage of the programs, while somewhat lighter than the department originally projected, are not a significant problem. According to the estimates -- which are based on the funds that colleges had “drawn down” from the federal treasury to use for the program as of early this month and extrapolated across all institutions and throughout the rest of the 2007 fiscal year -- about 480,000 students will have taken a total of $686 million in Academic Competitiveness and SMART Grants by year’s end. (The breakdown, according to Bergeron, is $373 million for the competitiveness grants and $313 million for SMART.)

That, Bergeron says, is lower than but in the ballpark of the $790 million that Congress appropriated for the first year of the program, and of the 500,000 students that the department had originally estimated would receive the grants in Year 1.

Although he says that a more accurate picture of the programs’ effects won’t be available until mid-January, when data about actual students’ usage of the programs become available, he says of these initial statistics: “For all of us concerned about getting more grant aid to low income students, to the extent [the programs] seem to be doing that, we’re happy.”

Officials on some campuses take the same general view. Ellen Frishberg, director of student financial services at Johns Hopkins University, says the two new programs have helped hundreds of students at her science and technology-heavy institution: 128 recipients of the competitiveness grants (77 freshmen at about $750 each, 51 sophomores at about $1,300 each), and 55 recipients of SMART at about $4,000 each. “I got $350,000 more to smart needy kids,” says Frishberg. “And I can’t wait to trot out the recipients of this, because they’re such spectacular kids, who are from poverty backgrounds.

”And to me,” she adds, “the targeting [of the programs toward science and other high-demand fields] makes total sense. This is the place I want to give poor kids more grant money.”

That argument doesn't persuade people like Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, who has been an outspoken critic of the programs. He says he understands the argument that "this is new money and because it looks like it's tied to Pell Grant eligibility, certainly it'll do some good, if we just swallow hard over that fact that it separates citizens from non-citizens, students with a 3.0 from those below, and full-time from part-time students."

But when an institution like Everett Community College, in Washington State, has more than 1,100 Pell Grant recipients, yet awarded just 3 Academic Competitiveness Grants, "that logic breaks down," Nassirian says. "The administrative burden and the effort involved in getting the ACG into the hands of the three students may outweigh" the value to those students.

Wolf, at Des Moines Area Community College, described the intensive efforts her institution has gone through to try to identify potentially eligible recipients of the Academic Competitiveness Grants, which were made more difficult by the fact that many students at the institution don't submit high school transcripts when they apply. Wolf says she has been amazed how few high school counselors -- let alone college-going students -- are aware of the programs and their requirements, and how many high schools have graduation requirements that don't qualify students for the new federal aid.

While she says she shares some of the philosophical objections that other financial aid officials have expressed, particularly about "tying a truly need-based program to academic" outcomes, Wolf's concerns at this point are primarily practical.

"Right now we’re behind the cart trying to push it forward out of the mud," Wolf says, in an analogy apt in Iowa. "The way this got rolled out, the timing on it didn't give us any time to go out and promote this to students, so as a result, we're mainly giving money to people who would already have gone to college. Two to three years down the road, it could be a great incentive piece for students, but right now it hasn't gotten down to the grass roots where it needs to be."

She adds: "There are lots of people who truly have embraced the program and would like to see it work. I would love to see this work. But there’s a lot of baggage right now that it has to overcome."


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