A deep divide between student aid and student need

Gaston Caperton worries that the government's "No Child Left Behind" is fast becoming an empty phrase.

The president of the College Board - a nonprofit group in Washington that informs students about admissions and finances - traveled around the country to interview hundreds of families about financial aid. "They told us the current system isn't adequately serving those who need help," Mr. Caperton says.

One of the most common complaints he encountered is that a shortage of need-based student assistance and an overly complex federal financial-aid process deepen the divide between student aid and student need.

The Harris Poll and Harvard University indicate, in separate studies, that the families most in need of financial assistance for college tend to know the least about applying for it.

The Harris Poll, conducted in the fall of 2002, found that more than two-thirds of parents whose income falls beneath $25,000 failed to identify the most basic sources of aid - including grants, scholarships, and loans.

With the average cost of tuition and room and board at US public universities just under $10,000, these families simply cannot afford college without assistance.

Before students are eligible for federal aid they must submit a FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, for the government to determine the level of need.

Students can then apply for federal sources of aid, including Stafford loans, work-study, and Pell grants. Some advice: File by February, because many schools offer aid on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Information about financial aid is available online and in high school offices, but not everyone has equal access to these resources.

The Harvard study, conducted by its Civil Rights Project, found that segregation is alive and well in US public schools, leaving some students with less opportunity to talk to staff who are knowledgeable about when and where to look for financial assistance.

"Based on our research, it is clear that there are serious signs of stress on our country's financial-aid system," says Michael McPherson, cochair of the National Dialogue on Student Financial Aid and president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.

Mr. McPherson encourages high school students to explore private grants offered by colleges, in addition to governmental assistance.

Web Smarts

http://www.collegeispossible.com/

What: Students and parents learn how to choose the right college and pay for it. Information is supplied by the Coalition of America's Colleges and Universities, which involves 1,200 schools, the US Department of Education, and more than 30 higher- education associations.

best points: In addition to providing basic facts about applying for financial aid and the aid itself, the website links to pages on scholarship scams, free search services, responsible borrowing, and scholarship applications.

Both teens and adults who hope to attend college will find the site useful. With tips on choosing the appropriate learning programs, as well as links to dozens of guides for adult students, the site leaves few questions unanswered.

what you should know: Because its purpose is to inform, the site's pages are free of advertising, and no particular grant, scholarship, or guide receives preferential attention.

Although all content is available in English, portions have been translated into Spanish as well.

Information deficit

The neediest families tend to have the least information on how to pay for higher education.

Percent who say they don't have enough information about financial aid:

Families who make less than $50,000: 60%
Families who make more than $75,000: 37%

African-American parents: 66%
Hispanic-American parents: 62%
White parents: 44%

Parents who did not go beyond high school: 57%
Parents with a college or advanced degree: 33%

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