Pell Grants

The Elephant in the Student Aid Office

Secretary of Education Margaret Spelling’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education recently released its report titled “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education.”  The report contains a series of recommendations built on a year of deliberation by its 19 members. First and foremost is the recommendation that “the U.S. commit to an unprecedented effort to expand higher education access and success by improving student preparation and persistence, addressing non-academic barriers and providing significant increases in aid to low-income students.”

Last week, in an effort to get out ahead of the momentum that is already building for the report and its recommendations, the American Council on Education and the other organizations that make up the “big six” higher education lobbying groups in Washington issued an eight-page letter to their members. 

This document, “Addressing the Challenges Facing American Undergraduate Education,” describes seven “issues and actions” that the organizations expect will result from the issuance of the Spellings commission's report. The first of these actions, echoing the commission’s first recommendation, is “Expanding college access to low-income and minority students.”

According to the six organizations, “The single most effective step to boost college participation of low-income and minority students is to increase substantially the value of Pell grants.”  Pell grants, the centerpiece of the federal government’s efforts to reduce college cost barriers for low- and moderate-income students, is indeed a critical part of the nation’s financial aid system. 

The letter supports the commission’s recommendation to increase the value of the average Pell award from 48 percent of the average in-state tuition at a public 4-year institution to 70 percent within five years.  This is a noble goal, and having the support of the six lobbying groups is critical in helping to persuade Congress and the Bush administration to support it also. ACE’s own calculations demonstrate that such an effort could require almost doubling the current $13 billion budget of the Pell grant program.

The letter also encourages colleges and universities to find ways to control the growth of costs, again echoing a major theme of the Spellings commission. And it encourages the institutions to do a better job providing to students and parents clearer and more accurate information about the true “net price” of college, after taking into account financial aid.

But in all the discussion in the letter about making college more affordable, these organizations ignore the elephant in the room: how colleges and universities spend their own institutional financial aid funds. While an increase in the value of Pell grants will certainly help achieve the objective of expanding postsecondary opportunity for low-income students, the goal could be promoted much more quickly and effectively through the reform of institutional financial aid policies.

In a study I conducted earlier this year for the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, I examined the distribution of grant awards to undergraduate students.  Using data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, a nationally representative sample of students from the 2003-4 academic year, I looked at what many label “traditional college students” -- those who are still dependents of their parents and attended a single college full-time that year. 

What I found was while colleges and universities provided just over $4 billion in federal grants and $3 billion in state grants to these students, they provided more than $10 billion in grants from their own resources.  The nation’s colleges and universities should be applauded for the effort they make in helping to lower the cost of college by partnering with the federal and state governments to award grants from institutional resources.  

But not all grants are alike. My study found that while 97 percent of all federal grant dollars and 75 percent of all state grant dollars awarded to these students went to those whose parents’ income was below the national median, only 47 percent of all institutional grants were targeted to this same population of students. Over half of the grants awarded by institutions, or $5.5 billion, was awarded to students without any consideration of their or their parents’ financial need. 

This is in contrast to Pell Grants, which are very highly targeted at needy students, and three-quarters of state grants, which also use financial need as the primary criterion for determining eligibility. The lack of means-testing in the awarding of over half the institutional grants, along with broader definitions of “need,” results in a very different distribution of awards as compared to means-tested federal and state grant programs.

There has been much written in the nation about the necessity of helping middle-income students find ways to help pay for college, especially since many of them come from families that are above the eligibility cutoff for federal or state need-based grants. Many institutions have indicated that they are filling that objective through their own institutional grant programs. And while many of these grants do go to students of modest means, the truth is that many go to students who come from families with incomes well above a level that most of us would describe as “modest.”

For example, in 2003-4, institutions awarded more than $2 billion in grant aid to dependent students from families with incomes in excess of $108,000, or approximately twice the median family income of all dependent students in the nation that year. While some may believe that these families deserve help in paying for college, it is difficult to make the argument that this should be a priority in light of the Spellings commission's declaration that its members “are especially troubled by gaps in college access for low-income Americans.” One is hard-pressed to argue that giving $2 billion in grants to students from these upper-income families helps to address the commission’s concerns.

What is particularly troubling is that the letter from ACE and its partner organizations never once lays even a portion of the responsibility for helping lower-income students afford college at the doorstep of the financial aid policies of their member institutions. There is language in the letter, of course, about expanding Pell Grants, and about other “efforts” and “goals” of institutions to improve access for poor students. There is also the announcement of another public service campaign called “Know How To Go” targeted at low-income students (raise your hand if you remember ACE’s “College is Possible” campaign, which was launched in 1997 and sounds awfully similar to “Know How To Go”).

But never does the letter recommend that these institutions conduct an evaluation of their own financial aid programs to determine whether they are working in consort with the goal of expanding access for underserved populations, or whether they are simply rewarding wealthier students who have had many social, financial, and academic advantages in the years before they went to college. 

Rather than focusing solely on public service campaigns, cost-cutting efforts, and new ways of explaining the difference between “sticker price” and “net price,” colleges and universities would be much better off by simply taking this $2 billion and putting it in the hands of low- and moderate-income students. This decision could be made tomorrow, requires no action on the part of the federal government, and would have an immediate impact on the college participation of these students.

The American Council on Education and the other higher education organizations in Washington should be lauded for their attempts to be proactive in supporting the recommendation of the Spellings commission to improve college access for low-income students. But before the organizations and their member institutions ramp up their external public relations and lobbying efforts, they should look inward at their own practices.

Reforming institutional policies so that all financial aid resources are focused on students who truly need them to be able to afford college -- rather than being awarded to students who would attend college anyway -- is an important first step.

Donald E. Heller
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Donald E. Heller is associate professor of education and senior research associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

Early Aid Could Lift College Aspirations

No one likes rising prices. In an era of substantial increases in tuition at public universities, alums wistfully recall that they paid $50 a semester for their education. But they may not recall the reason that bargain price was possible: strong financial support from state legislatures.

The upward trend in public university tuition over the last decade is largely a function of the erosion of that support -- the failure of legislative funding to keep pace with enrollment growth and inflation and the resulting reliance on tuition and fees to pick up the slack. The price -- if not the explanation -- has gotten plenty of coverage in the news media.

One impact of the notoriety of higher tuition costs may be to deter low-income students from even applying for university admission. In economic terminology, the perception of price may itself reduce demand. We know from behavioral economics that perceptions of pricing are often critical in predicting consumer behavior. There is solid evidence that poor families often overestimate the cost of higher education, sometimes doubling the actual amount. If they are the first in their families to consider college, they may not have good sources of information, they may fear the unknown, they may worry about amassing debt when they are not confident of academic success.

This is confirmed by the fact that high-performing, low-income students enroll at universities at a much lower rate than do low-performing, high-income students. Ideally, well before the 12th grade, students should be aware of three attributes of higher education financing:

  • The "sticker price" of higher education, which is so highly publicized, is not the same as the average price actually paid by students. In the University of Texas System, the average discount, provided through scholarships and grants, is 30 percent off "list." The discount is often even larger at private institutions. Some students pay full freight, but many others do not pay any tuition and fees at all.
  • Pell Grants from the federal government are "portable;" they follow the student to wherever he or she is admitted. Many but not all state programs have a similar feature. With all of the acrimonious debate over voucher systems in elementary and secondary education, the fact is that there has been a voucher system in higher education for many years.
  • Low- and modest-interest-rate loans to finance one's higher education are outstanding investments in human capital. The average college graduate will earn about $1 million more than a high school graduate over his or her lifetime. This beats the heck out of a loan for an automobile or kitchen appliance, assets that depreciate over time. Low-income families that understandably eschew debt of all kind should reconsider in the case of higher education. Having said this, it is imperative to improve university graduation rates, so that students see the benefits of their investment and fully realize their potential.

One way to educate and clear up perception issues for low-income families is for the federal government to make Pell Grant commitments in the 11th grade. For families barely getting by, the reality of an early commitment swamps the often ineffective, written and oral assurances that students receive. Early award notification might guide a student's curricular choices as he or she seeks to be college-ready and college-eligible. It might also encourage a student to work harder during the senior year, to provide a clear sense of purpose rather than drifting through an unproductive senior year, and it might encourage families to do more financial planning and to seek out other sources of support, including merit-based scholarships.

Not many years ago, along with officials from other Texas universities, I addressed a crowd of low-income Hispanic high school students and their parents from the Rio Grande Valley at a celebratory event for honors students. One of my colleagues extolled the virtues of students attending his university. When he got around to financial aid, he said that no student would be denied an education for lack of financial means, that his institution had fulsome, need-based scholarship programs. I looked around the room. The families had almost no reaction. These were just words, no matter how honorable the source. If those students had already received financial aid commitments, it would have been a very different story. As Ronald Reagan said, “trust but verify.”

Currently, students cannot complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) until January 1 of their senior year of high school. Despite electronic processing, the notice of federal, state and institutional awards may not arrive at the doorstep until the summer before a student enrolls in college. This often late notice, combined with the much criticized complexity of the form, predictably has a negative effect on the decision as to whether to apply to college--particularly among low-income families. The College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 commendably has taken steps to reduce complexity and to increase the level of family income (from $20,000 to $30,000) to qualify for a zero family contribution, but the timeline for application and notification remains unchanged. There is pending legislation for a pilot study to determine if awards are feasible as early as the junior year of high school, but it is not clear it will survive the higher education reauthorization process.

An early award program for Pell Grants would require the resolution of a number of obstacles. A family's income might significantly rise between the junior and senior year of high school. My own view, supported by the experience in Indiana, Oklahoma and other states awarding early state-provided financial aid, is that the occasional miscalculation is more than offset by the positive effects of an early award system on low-income families. The perfect is indeed the enemy of the good. What if family income declines? Adjustments in the package might be made in the second year of college or institutions might make up the differences with institutional or state funds. Or Pell funds might be set aside for this purpose.

There would also be some conflict with state financial aid laws and practices. Many state awards are not portable but dependent on the institution to which the student is admitted. A university cannot process such awards until a student is admitted, and thus, in such circumstances, the student would face a two-step process, an 11th grade application and another in the 12th grade. Furthermore, many states award merit-based scholarships. There are no simple answers. One approach, building on an analogy to the interplay between federal and state income taxes, would be to encourage the states to piggy-back on the Pell Grants and to create supplementary and portable state grant programs.

Perhaps the riskiest part of the early award strategy is that the students and their families will receive only partial information in the 11th grade as to the affordability of college. This can easily mislead. For example, an 11th grader might be notified of an award of the maximum Pell Grant of $4,310 (the maximum grant will rise to $4,800 next academic year and to higher figures in subsequent years), but the estimate of total expenses may be $15,000 or more at a public university. A poor family might quite reasonably think that it is responsible for the entire shortfall, not realizing that other financial aid may be available (or realizing it but worrying that it might not materialize).

One partial solution, if federal and state programs are in lock-step, is to make the state scholarship award at the same time. Another approach is to build on a recent trend among private and public universities. Public institutions such as the Universities of North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington have established income cut-offs (often in the $25,000 range or higher), guaranteeing that families at or below those levels will receive adequate scholarships to cover tuition and fees. Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and other distinguished private universities have similar programs. If the early award notification included such information for institutions designated by the student, the adverse effect of the partial information might be largely offset.

On balance, the benefits of an early award program for Pell Grants, particularly in terms of higher college participation rates for low-income Americans, outweigh the risks. If there is still doubt, the U.S. Department of Education might pilot such programs in a number of states. But one must remember that there is no silver-bullet solution for improving access. Out-of-pocket costs are critically important to families, but the greatest cost is the value of the work opportunities lost through college enrollment.

It is true that many students may be ill-prepared academically for college, requiring developmental courses to be college-ready. Many may also not be motivated to make the effort. Any solution to improving access to college for low-income students would be incomplete without addressing these issues, but an 11th grade award of Pell Grants may ameliorate the false perceptions of costs that cloud the application and enrollment processes.

Mark G. Yudof
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Mark G. Yudof is chancellor of the University of Texas System.

Meshing Speechwriting and Budget Making

First in his speech to Congress and then in his first budget, President Obama made his campaign rhetoric about higher education a reality. His speech laid out three ambitious goals for higher education. His budget would make Pell Grants an entitlement and would make permanent the tuition tax credit changes that were part of last month’s economic stimulus legislation. These and other changes in federal higher education policy would largely be paid for through a fundamental shift in how federal student loans are financed.

It is difficult to recall any prime-time presidential speech where higher education was spotlighted more as a domestic priority. But to examine the feasibility and advisability of this ambitious agenda, it is worth asking if the president’s goals for higher education are both consistent with one another and achievable. And whether the president’s budget proposals are the best way to achieve these lofty goals must also be considered.

Are the president’s three goals consistent with each other? Not entirely. First he called for increasing college graduation rates, then said every American should be able to try postsecondary education for at least one year. These two goals don’t mesh. Graduation rates are the share of enrolled students completing a degree. Giving more people a chance to go to college is why graduation rates in the U.S. traditionally have been modest when compared to other countries. Thus, any effort to produce more access now is likely to make it more difficult to increase graduation rates in the future.

The president’s third goal for higher education was that by 2020, the U.S. should again be the leader among OECD countries in attainment rates -- the proportion of the working age population that holds a postsecondary degree. Here the objective of increasing access is consistent with increasing attainment. The U.S., in fact, is a prime example of how more access has led to higher attainment even when graduation rates are modest.

The U.S. continues to have one of the highest bachelor's degree attainment rates among OECD countries. Associate’s degrees from community colleges are where the U.S. has had an average record of attainment; this remains the case. But if our work force surveys counted people with certificates and other short-term credentials as sub-bachelor's degree holders in the same way as Canada, which has the highest overall attainment rates among OECD countries, our attainment rate would be higher than Canada's and we already would rank as the highest in the world (so we don't need to wait until 2020!).

The president’s speechwriters picked up on a drumbeat sounded by many groups in this country in recent years. The argument is that the U.S. is falling behind when it comes to higher education and that the federal and state governments must increase their funding for both students and for institutions if the country is to remain globally competitive.

The statistics cited in this drumbeat include: college access is falling, graduation rates are low and declining, attainment rates also are declining, and the rate that younger workers attain their degrees is lower than older workers for the first time in our history. These assertions are based on OECD-reported statistics or on their interpretation.

Questionable Comparisons

But these assertions are often misleading and in several cases simply wrong. In higher education, and many other functional areas, the OECD indicators are often proxy figures because member countries simply do not collect data in similar ways. As a result, OECD reports may not accurately reflect reality in the individual countries. For example, the OECD version of participation rates – enrollment ratios -- make it seem that access in the U.S. is declining, but it is very hard to find any other evidence that this is so.

Enrollments in the U.S. grew by 3 percent per year in the first half of the 2000's -- a high rate of growth historically -- in reaction to the recession and other factors; 18 million students now annually enroll in the fall -- an all time high. And these figures do not include most career school students as well as those students in traditional institutions who don’t enroll in the fall.

The college graduation rates as reported by OECD are particularly problematic; they divide the number of students who graduate in a year by the population of traditional graduation age in that year. They are really more a bad measure of attainment than of graduation and they should not be used in any serious way. Based on other data sources, the U.S. probably has a below-average graduation rate that reflects the philosophy of a mass higher education system that aims to give people a chance to go to college.

The drumbeaters, and now the president, have made attainment a key national goal by combining our historically high bachelor’s degree attainment with average sub-bachelor’s rates to produce a mediocre OECD ranking for the combined rate. But as noted above, this ignores the fact that we don’t count career school programs in measuring attainment rates while others like Canada do. More importantly, looking at the combined rate can mask the very real challenges that community colleges face which need to be addressed.

Assertions about declines in the U.S. attainment rate also can be deceiving. They are based on comparing degree attainment of the youngest and the oldest workers; in the U.S. these rates are virtually the same. By contrast, higher education in most OECD countries is growing and younger workers are gaining degrees at much higher rates than older workers. But U.S. Census data confirm that our attainment rates, at least for those earning bachelor’s degrees, are growing, albeit more slowly than for many other OECD countries. The reason for this paradox: younger workers continue to attain degrees as they age and their attainment rate eventually will exceed that for current older workers.

Expanding a Flawed Status Quo?

Statistics aside, though, we all recognize that all facets of our postsecondary pipeline -- preparation, participation, and persistence as well as attainment -- must improve if we are to remain globally competitive, particularly for the most disadvantaged students. The problem with the president’s proposals is that current programs and policies to some extent have contributed to the current challenges; expanding them thus may not be the best solution. It also is not clear whether the president’s budget proposals as presented will lead to higher graduation rates and levels of attainment.

For example, putting more money into Pell Grants and expanding tuition tax credits should help improve access, at least in open-enrollment community colleges and for-profit colleges, but there is little evidence this will help improve graduation rates.

Moreover, some of us believe these policies may not achieve more access if steps are not also taken to prevent the additional funds from fueling higher tuitions – this is the “health care cost problem” in higher education caused in part by growing loan availability that we haven't been willing to address directly. There is also reason to worry that past expansions in Pell Grants may have led many institutions to rely more on federal funds for access so that they could use discounts for marketing to middle income students who can pay a bigger portion of the bill. Thus, we should be wary of “substitution effects,” as well as possible price effects, as unintended consequences of federal policies.

One effect of the president’s proposals to make Pell Grants a federal entitlement, index its future growth to inflation, and make tax credits refundable is that this will increase the degree of overlap between these two largest forms of non-repayable aid. We should aim instead to reduce that overlap in the future by focusing Pell Grants more on students from the lowest income families who pay no or little taxes and rely on tuition tax credits as the primary vehicle for helping students from families who pay income taxes as well as growing numbers of older workers enrolling in college.

The president’s budget also picks up on a campaign promise that would represent another form of integration between federal aid and the tax system: allow families and students to permit their income tax information to be used to determine aid eligibility. This proposal would simplify the system and increase access by doing away with the dreaded FAFSA form. A further form of integration would base eligibility for Pell Grants and loan subsidies on how much taxes families and students would pay under the 1040A tax rules.

For those of us who have long advocated relying more on federal financing of student loans than subsidizing banks, the president’s direct loan proposal is certainly welcome. But it makes the mistake, as others have before, of focusing too much on when students borrow and not nearly enough on when repayment begins and heavy loan burdens become a reality. Democrats demonstrated this foible when assuming leadership of the House in the previous Congress. They made higher education one of their top legislative priorities and their major accomplishment was to halve the interest rates for borrowers for whom the federal government already pays the interest while they are in school. For the many millions of borrowers already repaying their loans, much less help was provided.

What is really needed in this country with respect to student loans is a seamless system so that it does not matter whether the federal government or the private sector initially finances the loans. In such a system the principal focus would be on providing all borrowers with viable options that allow them to make their repayments manageable relative to their incomes once they complete their education. For such a system to work it would also be necessary for institutions to become an active partner by reducing their sticker price for those students who must borrow, thereby reducing debt burdens.

The president’s budget does include one proposal that could make a real difference with respect to improving graduation rates. It would pay states and institutions based on the numbers of low-income students who graduate. This kind of supply-side approach to get states and institutions more involved in improving attainment, particularly for the most disadvantaged students, is much needed and a welcome addition to the debate. But the president proposes this new fund be layered on top of longstanding federal programs that fund states and institutions to provide aid. Instead, the new fund should replace the existing programs and thereby do away with anachronistic funding formulas that favor wealthier states and institutions because they traditionally have provided more aid.

What is missing in the president’s budget is a much more aggressive early intervention strategy that reaches out to at-risk students well before they arrive in college. This gap is surprising given that Secretary of Education Duncan cut his teeth professionally on such a program in Chicago. There is evidence that federal programs like Gear Up and private efforts such as I Have a Dream often can be more effective than traditional student aid in getting at-risk students onto the college track and keeping them there. These efforts deserve big increases in funding and attention before we limit our future options by making Pell Grants another federal entitlement.

It would be beneficial if the president’s speech and budget stimulated a thoughtful debate in this country about how we pay for college and other postsecondary training. This debate should use real statistics in comparing us with other countries as well as drawing on the experience of those other countries. We should also be examining closely what states and the private sector here are accomplishing.

This debate should also include a hard look at the mix of academic and vocational training we provide in this country and produce a strategy that will maximize our ability to compete globally and to rebuild the infrastructure that we all know needs repair. The answer ultimately may well be found more in policies that produce better-prepared high school graduates, more effective community colleges, a network of well-run career schools, and much greater use of apprenticeships that are all tied to current and emerging labor force needs than in any large-scale expansion of our universities.

Arthur M. Hauptman
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Arthur M. Hauptman is a public policy consultant specializing in higher education finance issues. He is based in Arlington, Va., and can be reached at

Subprime Student Loans

An unintended consequence of making access to college an entitlement readily available to all high school graduates is that serious study in high school has become optional, even for those intending to go to college. Without an incentive to study diligently, many students are disengaged in high school and, as a result, underprepared for college. Some freshmen arrive at college thinking that having fun is the main reason they are at college and that the pursuit of knowledge should be available for when they have nothing better to do.

This situation came about relatively recently, partly the result of a change in the meaning of financial aid. Until World War II, financial aid referred to traditional scholarships that were awarded to academically meritorious students who mostly also were needy. The G.I. Bill, which financed college for discharged veterans of World War II, foreshadowed broader programs of federal grants and loans -- 20 at present from the federal government, 17 from the Department of Education and 3 more from other federal agencies -- that essentially universalized "financial aid." Few of them require better than mediocre previous or current academic achievement. As a consequence, about 30 percent of incoming freshmen at four-year colleges and over half the freshmen at two-year colleges are assigned to remedial courses in writing, mathematics, or other courses.

Nevertheless, federal grant programs, though supplemented by state and private grant programs, were never able to cover the financial needs of the millions of college students whose families could not afford the rising costs of attending college. So Congress established several loan programs, some indirect loans whose federal subsidies made attractive to banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions, and some financed directly by the Department of Education. Unlike Pell Grants and other federal grant programs for college students such as work-study programs for needy college students, which do not have to be repaid, loans must be repaid with interest after graduating from or leaving college.

Repayment is a problem for student borrowers. Many of these loans are subprime -- toxic in the same sense that some mortgages were toxic. They are even more likely to be subprime than mortgages are; the only collateral is usually the student’s future earning prospects after graduating, presumably enhanced by what he or she has learned at college. Student borrowers who do not learn enough from their educations to get jobs that permit then to repay what they have borrowed are likely to default on their loans, leaving taxpayers liable for them.

The student financial aid system was created by Congress not as an integrated system but in pieces: to do a variety of things for a variety of reasons. One major objective was to help youngsters from low-income families gain access to higher education. In the light of our egalitarian ideals, limiting educational preparation for good careers to children fortunate enough to have educated, affluent parents seemed immoral. A second reason for promoting college access for youngsters from low-income families is that, as Jefferson argued, persons of extraordinary talent may be born in humble circumstances, and giving them educational opportunities might enable the American economy to be more productive. The knowledge explosion during the 20th century demonstrated that ideas are extremely important to the "creative destruction" that a market system needs in order for the economy to grow. Institutions of higher education are where many new ideas are developed by adults through research and transmitted to youngsters through teaching. Politicians are referring to this economic growth function when they speak euphorically about student grants and loans as "investments." Realistically speaking, however, only a few federal grant programs -- and none of the loan programs -- seek out top-notch students who will presumably contribute most to the productivity of the American economy; others aim only to make accessible the college experience for children of lower-income families. The existing system is an uneasy compromise between these two objectives.

It is an uneasy compromise partly because promoting access for youngsters from low-income families sometimes conflicts with the meritocratic ideal of educating youngsters most capable of making great intellectual contributions to knowledge. A better compromise could be made to realize these two objectives by targeting the grants and loans devised by the federal financial aid program to needy students studying diligently in order to prepare to go to college. Instead they were set up mainly as incentives simply to go to college, prepared or not. Congress apparently assumed that the colleges would screen admissions appropriately or perhaps Congress was afraid to appear elitist by imposing meritocratic conditions. Thus, federal aid to college students removed most financial barriers to attending college. Applications increased as high school students heard the message that college attendance led to well-paid, interesting careers, and was now affordable. Many colleges expanded facilities and lowered academic standards for admission; virtually any high school graduate could get into some college. Students might have had an incentive to work harder in high school if they had had to demonstrate academic achievement both to gain admission to college and to obtain financial aid to cover expenses while enrolled. The unintended consequence of failing to set this requirement is students graduating from college without good job prospects, a problem made worse in an economy where the unemployment rate has now risen above 10 percent. The predictable result is a growing rate of student loan defaults.

I am about to propose to change federal loan programs to college students but not to change federal educational grants to college students. Why the difference? Both suffer from the same drawback; they entitle mediocre as well as able students to obtain federal financial aid. A different approach is justifiable because federal loans have much worse consequences for both students and taxpayers than federal grants.

Consider grants first. As gifts from American taxpayers that students do not have to repay, it is true that grants are a complete loss to taxpayers if students do not make contributions to American society as a result of going to college. On the other hand, grants involve less than half as much money as loans in the aggregate as loans. And even individual cases of defaulted loans, accompanied as they are by interest and penalties, can be very large burdens both to American taxpayers and to individual student borrowers. In a November 2009 case decided by a panel of five New York State judges who ruled against admitting a student borrower to the New York bar, the panel said, “His application demonstrates a course of action amounting to neglect of financial responsibilities with respect to the student loans he has accumulated since 1983.” The student owed nearly half a million dollars. This admittedly unusual case shows the advantage to both students and taxpayers of grants over loans. Because there are strict limits to the annual grants that students can receive from the Department of Education in any academic year, students cannot attend college whose costs are way beyond their means.

With the help of Pell and other grants, students can afford a community college even if they cannot get loans rather than an expensive private college, especially if they live at home and commute. Students who start at community colleges and are successful academically can transfer to four-year colleges for their junior and senior years. In other words, student grants ignore academic merit even though everyone knows that students who have not done well in high school are unlikely to do better in college. These grants are an expression of American society’s willingness to make higher education available even to students who are poor risks. Giving Pell Grants is a societal bet -- though a long shot -- that mediocre students are late bloomers and can do better scholastically in the future, not that mediocrity is acceptable in itself.

This bet is riskier for loans, and consequently I recommend that loans be treated differently. Congress and the President should start to require the Department of Education to make student loans contingent on the best available evidence of the student’s prospects for repaying them, such as good job prospects based on high school and college grades, curriculum in which they enrolled, and their credit ratings. Defaults would still occur. Predicting the earning potential of college students is chancy. However, many young people would almost certainly be saved from financial ruin, and American taxpayers would almost certainly not have to bail out as many subprime student loans.

As theologians have said, we mean well and do ill and justify our ill-doing by our well-meaning. The unintended consequences of good intentions apply to our system of financial aid to American college students, as it did to our providing mortgage money to borrowers who could by no stretch of the imagination have kept up payments on their mortgages.

To sum up: Federal grants give mediocre students a chance to become late bloomers. Loans, however, are expected to be repaid, and mediocre high school students with bad credit ratings are likely to default on their loans, causing serious financial problems for themselves and financial complications for the American economy. Targeting loans to students with good prospects for repaying them is more prudent financially and makes more sense educationally. Some illiterate high school graduates have already sued their high schools for educational malpractice; disappointed college graduates may follow suit. Some diplomas are "tickets to nowhere."

Jackson Toby
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Jackson Toby is professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers University. His new book, The Lowering of Higher Education in America: Why Financial Aid Should Be Based on Student Performance,was published last month by Praeger.

Road Not Taken on Pell Grants

Smart Title: 
GAO analysis of change in aid formula finds that approaches other than that used by the Bush administration would have hurt far fewer students.

Assessing College 'Access and Accountability'

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The numbers are bleak and -- for anyone who cares about the vibrancy of the American economy or the importance of an educated citizenry -- deeply worrisome: the United States has fallen to 17th in the world in high school graduation rates and 7th in college-going rates, and is the only industrialized country whose rates are falling.

And perhaps most troubling of all, the rates are lowest among those segments of the American populace that are growing the fastest.

Disappointing Budget Blueprint

Smart Title: 
Compromise adopted by Congress contains little of what colleges want.

For Colleges, a Better Than Expected Budget

Smart Title: 
Money is tight in House spending plan for education programs and NIH, but panel reverses most cuts proposed by Bush administration.

Budget Bill Advances in House

Smart Title: 
Appropriations Committee endorses $50 increase in Pell maximum and minuscule boost for NIH.

House Holds Firm on Tight Budget

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In passing spending measure for student aid and NIH, lawmakers approve permanent end to lender loophole.


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