Still a Good Investment

FEDERAL dollars spent to help students attend college have traditionally been thought of as a sound investment, since they bring a valuable return in more productive and prosperous citizens.

While this line of thinking remains persuasive, it's not likely to deter budget cutters. The various grant, loan, and work-study programs administered from Washington are being eyed for possible excision.

Budget trims in this area are hardly new. Over the years, loans have far surpassed grants as Congress's preferred means of helping young people enter college. Appropriations for programs like Pell grants, which aid low-income students, perennially fall short of what's authorized.

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In the 1993-'94 school year, billions in federal loans, grants, and work-study aid were distributed to students attending schools that range from prestigious universities to community and vocational colleges. In total, some 6 million students make use of the federal programs, and many wouldn't be in college without them.

Before lawmakers move too swiftly to further squeeze student aid, they should remember that next year will bring reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act. That will be a logical occasion to carefully reassess all these programs - doing some needed tightening, and paying attention to how the rapidly rising cost of higher education might be contained.

Questions of direction and purpose can be tackled too. For instance, should aid be reoriented toward helping students complete four years of college, instead of just getting them started? A study by the Washington-based Institute for Higher Education Policy notes that almost half the people who enroll at colleges and universities in the US never get a degree. The study suggests a number of ways of redirecting current resources and shifting incentives to encourage what it calls ''persistence'' - i.e., finishing college.

The data linking completion of college to earning ability are impressive. Access to American higher education has steadily expanded for the last half century. Still, only about 20 percent of Americans over 25 hold a bachelor's, or higher, degree, and the training needs of those who don't choose college should be addressed too. But there's little doubt the careers of the next 50 years will put an ever larger premium on advanced education. It's no time to be narrowing that avenue for young Americans.

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