Counter trend: college aid that really is based on need

California flies in the face of past patterns by gearing massive financial aid program to low- income families.

Well known for setting trends, California is bucking one in the field of higher education.

With record prosperity at its back, the nation's largest state is about to enact the country's largest college financial-aid program.

But beyond mere size - some $1.2 billion when fully implemented - the program is noteworthy, say experts, because it is aimed at families in the lowest income brackets.

That's against the grain of most new state and federal aid programs of the 1990s, which have been geared predominantly to helping the middle class, the experts say..

The California plan, says Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, "is a major reassertion of a fundamental principle in college aid, that it should be needs-based." And by doing so, "California is flying in the face of the national trend of the past decade, making a statement others may follow."

Some experts are calling the new program the biggest thing since the federal GI Bill in terms of the number of nontraditional college-bound students it will help attend institutions of higher education.

Basically, the program will extend financial aid to nearly one-third of the state's high school graduating class. Low-income students with at least a "C" average would be guaranteed grants enabling them to attend community college. Low- and moderate-income students with a "B" average could receive grants covering all their fees within the state's four-year university or college systems and up to $9,700 for tuition help at private universities.

"We're saying, 'Look, if you meet these standards, you're in.' It takes away the excuse and the fear of not being able to afford college," says the state's interim secretary for education, John Mockler.

Nationwide, state funding of higher education has been rising sharply over the past three years, well ahead of inflation. At the same time, tuition hikes of the early 1990s have slowed or reversed. Further, the number of students going on to college is at an all-time high.

But education analysts see little or no progress on one point: the gap between the percentage of children from high-income families going to college and the percentagegoing to college from low income families.

In other words, says Callan, the nation is still a long way from equalizing the opportunity to go to college regardless of income.

The thrust of new college aid in recent years at the federal level has been toward middle-income families. In addition, some states have increasingly established merit-based aid programs. Indeed, the California plan includes a merit component that offers financial reward to high achievers. But what some experts worry about with merit is that because high achievement is so linked to higher incomes that merit awards tend to simply make it easier financially for students to attend college who were already headed to college.

At the federal level, the HOPE Tax Credit program enacted in 1997 was a substantial new aid program. But by being a tax credit, it doesn't help families making $30,000 or less who don't pay federal income taxes. The federal Pell grant program is geared to the poor, and while it has grown, the biggest new expenditure for college aid in recent years has been new tax credits.

Extending more college aid to poor families is critical, says Callan, because two trends are emerging in states with fast-rising populations of high-school- age children. In California, New York, and Texas, for example, an ever larger share of college-bound students are immigrants and low-income minorities.

At the same time, nationwide, the importance of college in gaining a foothold in the New Economy is greater than ever.

The key to bringing college to more low income high school students is partly the quality of the schools themselves, says Callan. But also making it financially feasible for more of them to enroll in college.

"Frankly, I don't think our economy can afford to exclude more students just because they come from poor families," Callan says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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