Ever since Congress created two new student aid programs in a mad rush in 2005, many college administrators and financial aid experts have looked at them askance. Their objections about the Academic Competitiveness and National Science and Mathematics Access to Retaining Talent (SMART) Grants were legion: First, the programs were badly crafted by Republican lawmakers who insisted on pouring billions in precious new federal funds into programs based in part on academic merit (in stark historical contrast to most federal need-based aid) and limiting the programs to full-time students who are U.S. citizens.
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, which many financial aid and registrars viewed as overly complicated and restrictive. Rumors and anecdotal reports flew constantly that individual colleges, and the Education Department collectively, were finding it hard to find enough recipients for the money.
Department officials have said all along that the programs, gripes notwithstanding, were largely achieving their goals of encouraging more low-income students to take a rigorous high school curriculum and to consider majoring in science, math and other "high demand" disciplines. The numbers would ultimately tell the tale, they said.
Well, the first solid numbers on usage of the two programs do tell a tale, but not a clearcut one. Education Department officials say that the newly available statistics (which are found in several tables below) largely support their view that so far, students are earning the grants at about the rate the department projected, that usage is strongest in states (like Indiana) with the highest high school academic standards, and that college officials are responding aggressively and positively to identify potential recipients and get the new grant funds to them.
"This is a six-month temperature check on the first year of a very new program, and I think these numbers show that the programs are off to a promising start," says Kristin D. Conklin, a senior adviser to Sara Martinez Tucker, the under secretary of education. "We're six months into the year, and about half the money has been drawn down, so we're on track. The programs are being used most in the states that do the right thing [in terms of requiring students to take a rigorous college-prep curriculum], and we're pleased to see just how active community colleges are in reporting active students for [Academic Competitiveness Grants]. Colleges have been incredibly responsive."
Conklin acknowledges one caveat significant enough that Education Secretary Margaret Spellings "doesn't want to declare victory" yet: The fact that just 4 percent of low-income students who are eligible for federal Pell Grants (the country's primary need-based grant program) have qualified for the competitiveness or SMART grants.
Although Conklin attributes that limitation primarily to the stark reality that relatively few low-income students have taken a rigorous enough curriculum to qualify, critics see the programs' lack of "reach" into the nation's legions of needy students as evidence of their fundamental flaws: that they are off-limits to part-time students and to non-U.S. citizens, and that the programs are enormously complex, both to qualify for and to administer. In addition, some college officials note, a relatively tiny portion of Academic Competitiveness Grants have gone to students at community colleges, and the SMART Grants appear to have drawn relatively few students thus far into some high-demand fields like foreign languages.
"We and the department can look at this and both see the glass as half full," said Becky Timmons, associate vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education. "I think the numbers totally support the need for some changes."
Adding Numbers to the Rhetoric
Previous articles on this site have laid out the history  and hashed out the arguments against  and for the Academic Competitiveness and SMART Grants , which Congress created and President Bush signed into law in the Higher Education Reconciliation Act of 2005.
College officials and others have eagerly awaited solid numbers about how the programs are being implemented, with the thought that data might clearly adjudicate whether they are doing what they were supposed to. But statistics often can be read in multiple ways such that people can use them to make the arguments they wish, and that's true in this case, too.
The overall numbers for usage, as seen in the table that follows, show that about half of the $790 million that Congress appropriated for the 2007 fiscal year has been awarded by colleges so far, about halfway through the year. Conklin, of the Education Department, cited that fact as evidence that the programs are meeting their goals. "Six months in, and half the money is drawn down -- we're on track," she said. Conklin noted that fewer than two-thirds of colleges have reported how much of the available grant money they have actually distributed to students, so the actual amount of money spent may be significantly higher.
And many community colleges, which have not previously been in the habit of reviewing transcripts as part of their admissions processes, are doing so for the first time, Conklin said. "For instance, we recently contacted one state when we learned that a significant number of its community colleges have not yet drawn down any AC Grant money," she said.
But several financial aid officials said it seemed unlikely that colleges would be identifying significant new numbers of grant recipients in the second half of the year, and they note that administration officials seemed to be counting on money left over from the 2007 year in President Bush's budget proposal to expand spending on the two programs in 2008.
Money Used on Academic Competitiveness and SMART Grants, 2007 to date
|Academic Competitiveness Grants||SMART Grants||Totals for Both Programs|
The following two tables show the distribution of Academic Competitiveness Grants and SMART Grants by type of institution. Although Conklin said the numbers left her pleased that community colleges were finding significant numbers of their students to give grants to, David S. Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, said the small proportion of ACG recipients who attended two-year college students underscores the limitations of the program's restriction to full-time students and to U.S. citizens.
"E.D.'s data confirm anecdotal reports that ACGs are doing little to help community college students," Baime said in an e-mail message. "It is increasingly difficult for us to support a program that is flawed in conception and implementation and has such limited impact on our campuses."
Use of Academic Competitive Grants, by Institution Type
|Institution Type||No. of Colleges||No. of Recipients||Amount Awarded||Amount Disbursed|
|Total Private Nonprofit||866||63,738||$55,064,457||$49,903,863|
Use of SMART Grants, by Institution Type
|Type of Institution||No. Colleges||No. of Recipients||Total Awards||Total Disbursements|
|4-Year Private Nonprofit||659||12,649||$46,013,511||$40,187,044|
Conklin acknowledged that part-time status disqualified some students for the competitiveness grants, but that the level of enrollment "is not, we think, the driver" of the fact that students are not qualifying. By far the primary factor in knocking students out of contention for the grants is failure to take a rigorous high school curriculum, Conklin said, citing the numbers below -- showing disproportionately large numbers of ACG recipients, for instance, in Indiana, where 67 percent of Pell Grant-eligible students are receiving the competitiveness grants, compared to 4 percent nationally -- as evidence.
"We're getting reach as deep as there is rigor out there," said Conklin, who added that Indiana is a model of what can happen when a state dedicates itself to ensuring that as many low-income students as possible have access to a college prep curriculum. She said department officials noted with satisfaction that since the law enacting the two new grant programs passed early last year, 14 states had added requirements aimed at increasing the proportion of such students.
Academic Competitiveness Grants by State, 2007
|State||No. of Recipients||Total Awarded||Total Disbursed|
|District of Columbia||264||$209,950||$191,000|
The distribution of SMART Grants by major suggests to some that the legislation isn't necessarily fulfilling its goals of drawing students into certain high-demand fields. Some analysts were particularly struck by the relative dearth of recipients in foreign language fields.
Distribution of SMART Grants, by Major and Average Grant Size
|Major||Recipients||Total Disbursed||Average Disbursement|
The department also released lists of the institutions that had received and distributed the most money in the ACG and SMART programs. One particularly striking element of the SMART Grant list is the appearance on the list of two major for-profit colleges: DeVry and the University of Phoenix.
|Pennsylvania State U.||$2,220,002|
|U. of Florida||$1,375,680|
|U. of California at Berkeley||$1,221,629|
|California State U. at Long Beach||$1,201,808|
|U. of Texas at Austin||$1,152,246|
|U. of California at San Diego||$1,149,652|
|California State U. Northridge||$1,086,381|
|U. of Central Florida||$1,058,858|
|U. of California at Davis||$1,045,729|
|Top 10 SMART Grant Recipients|
|Brigham Young U.||$4,288,504|
|U. of California at San Diego||$2,520,349|
|U. of Phoenix||$1,918,919|
|Pennsylvania State U.||$1,895,384|
|U. of Florida||$1,880,625|
|Utah State U.||$1,863,431|
|U. of Utah||$1,371,453|
|U. of Washington||$1,366,338|
|U. of California at Berkeley||$1,357,309|