As many college financial aid officers have continued to scorn the federal government's two newest student-aid programs,  the Academic Competitiveness Grant and National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) Grant Programs, questioning the grants' usefulness to students and criticizing the burdens of administering it, Education Department officials have urged patience. Let's wait until we have good data to see how (and how many) students benefited, they argued.
Well, the first year's numbers are in (some of them, at least), and perhaps predictably, the picture is mixed. The Education Department released data showing that it had awarded nearly $430 million in funds from the two programs to about 360,000 students in the 2006-7 fiscal year -- $233 million to 300,000 students in Academic Competitiveness Grants, and about $196 million to nearly 61,000 students in SMART Grants.
The $430 million is far short of the $790 million that Congress appropriated for the first year based on the department's projections about how much it hoped to spend, a gap that could be read as a sign that the programs have fallen well short of initial expectations. While department officials discouraged such a reading -- noting that the projections used by Congress were "budget math, not based on sophisticated estimates," as Kristin Conklin, an aide to Under Secretary Sara Martinez Tucker put it -- they acknowledged that the program's first year pointed out numerous challenges that face the programs aimed at encouraging more low-income students to be rigorously prepared to enter high-demand scientific and other fields in college.
"We're happy for the 300,000 [Academic Competitiveness Grant recipients] who were able to add to their grant monies, and the 61,000 majoring in much-needed fields," Tucker said in an interview Thursday. "These are monies these kids would have had to either work or borrow to complement. We have to study why we had penetration in some markets more than others, but you celebrate any penetration you're able to accomplish."
As Tucker suggests, the department's data show great variation by state in who qualified for the two grant programs, as seen in the table below. States like Arkansas and Minnesota, both of which have programs that encourage or require high school students (particularly those at low income levels) to take a rigorous college preparatory curriculum, had disproportionately high numbers of recipients of Academic Competitiveness Grants, which provide $750 for the first year and $1,300 for the second to Pell Grant-eligible, full-time, degree-program American citizens who have completed a curriculum deemed rigorous by the U.S. education secretary. (SMART Grants award up to $4,000 a year to juniors and seniors in certain high-demand fields, as long as they maintain a 3.0 college grade point average.)
Other states, meanwhile, had poor showings, as just 10 percent of the estimated potential recipients of the grants in Arizona applied for and received them, as did just 9 percent of Alaska's potential recipients. "Are there really only 60 students in the State of Alaska" who want this additional federal money? Conklin asked. "Probably not. We probably need to do a much better job of getting the word out there."
But even in states where many students qualified for the two new grants, which Congress created last year, there is great variation in how they are distributed. The Education Department's fact sheet about how the new grants fared in the first year trumpets the fact that four University of California campuses were among the top 10 recipients nationally of the Academic Competitiveness Grants. (The top five recipients of the Academic Competitiveness Grants were Pennsylvania State University, UC-Davis, the University of Texas at Austin, UCLA, and Ohio State University; the top five SMART Grant recipients were Brigham Young University, the University of Phoenix, UC-San Diego, DeVry University, and Penn State.)
The University of California's performance is due in large part to the fact that applicants to the university are required to have successfully completed a high school curriculum like the one that qualifies a student for the federal grants. So it is logical that the university would fare well in the department's accounting, and "we are always interested in more grant support from any source for low-income students, no matter what they call it or how they award it," said Nancy Coolidge, coordinator of government relations in student financial support for the University of California system.
Grateful as she might be for the support for her students, though, Coolidge notes that because of the structure and requirements of the two grant programs, students at other institutions in California don't fare nearly as well -- and even UC's own students may not benefit fully. The fact that non-citizen permanent residents of the United States are barred from receiving the grants limits the programs' reach in a state where "that's a very large population," Coolidge said.
And a far smaller proportion of students at the state's other (and much bigger) university system, the California State University, qualify for the two new grant programs even though Cal State applicants must have completed the same rigorous high school curriculum (known as the "A-G" requirements) as students at the University of California. The difference? Many more students at Cal State attend part time, and therefore are ineligible for the grants.
The picture is even worse at California's many community colleges, says Linda Michalowski, vice chancellor for student services and special programs for the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office. In addition to the issues Coolidge identified about citizenship and part-time enrollment, the two-year institutions are hampered by the fact that they are basically open enrollment, and do not as a general rule collect the transcripts of their students. So even though an institution like Long Beach City College had 8,005 students whose family incomes were low enough that they received Pell Grants in 2006-7, the two-year college had just 91 recipients of Academic Competitiveness Grants that year, Michalowski said.
Michalowski and Coolidge both said that while they appreciated the Education Department's goal of using the new programs to try to improve the rigor of high school curriculums and the ambitions of low-income students to aim higher, they were unsure it was the right thrust for federal policy.
"The students [at the University of California] who receive these grants were already going to college, and this reduces their [financial] burden, and that's good," said Coolidge. "But we support the federal contribution being that of access. I hope more youngsters are stimulated to take more rigorous courses, but the jury's still out on that. But in the meantime, a lot of needy students are being left out."
The department aims to double the number of recipients of the two grant programs by 2010-11.
Recipients of New Academic Competitiveness and SMART Grants, by State
|State||ACG Program||SMART Grant Program|
|Recipients||Total Disbursed||Recipients||Total Disbursed|
|District of Columbia||1,083||$958,091||133||$485,063|
Source: U.S. Education Department