College Debt Bars Equal Access

MANY high school seniors have been checking their mailboxes this month in hopes of finding acceptance letters from colleges. But an acceptance letter isn't enough to ensure a student's enrollment next fall. Financial aid is the essential element in those acceptance packets where I live. Most families in this "downeast" corner of Maine still make their living off the sea, the forests, or the blueberry plains. People here make about the same income as their parents did 30 years ago, while college costs have skyrocketed.

Although financial-aid packages ostensibly meet students' demonstrated need, they have increasingly relied more on student loans than on grants or work-study programs. In 1975, 21 percent of all federal aid was in the form of loans. By 1984, that figure had jumped to 66 percent. Students who want to continue their education must sink deeply in debt at a very young age.

This may be acceptable for students from affluent families, but it is having a disquieting effect on students with lower incomes. In the words of a typical study: "When loans are substituted for grant aid to low-income students, college access dropped, college choice deteriorated, and default rates increased."

The Higher Education Act of 1965 was intended to allow students from low-income backgrounds the same chances to go to college as their middle-class peers. Yet this goal is no longer being pursued. Be it in rural Maine or urban Newark, in the past decade there has been a general movement toward policies that diminish equal access.

At age 16, a student we'll call Linda has often worked two or three after-school jobs to support herself through high school. She hopes to go to college next year to study environmental education. She will be asked to take out a loan next year of $2,650 and will probably graduate $13,300 in debt. This prospect could dissuade her from attending.

Joan was asked by her parents to leave home at age 12 to live with her grandmother. She has taken care of her grandmother for six years, supported by her grandmother's monthly disability check and food stamps.

Joan hopes eventually to study law. She will need to mortgage her future to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars if she is to ever practice law.

WHAT trends have caused students like Joan and Linda to be faced with such difficult choices?

1. Federal funding and commitment to equal education fell in the 1980s. Federal grant programs have not kept up with the soaring costs of college. In 1979, the maximum Pell grant covered 46 percent of average college costs. In 1989, it covers only 21 percent. Loans fill the gap.

2. Financial aid is not focused enough on the "truly needy" student. A 1988 study showed that families with incomes below $10,000 still had only about half their proportionate share of college students, and that most scholarship grants did not go to the lowest income students. The Consortium of Higher Education, representing 32 elite private colleges, reported in 1989 that the previous year 21 percent of its financial-aid recipients had family incomes over $60,000, and that the share going to low-income students was falling.

3. Public universities (still the main choice for most students in this area) have raised their tuition dramatically. In the 1960s and 1970s, the intent was to keep public-university tuition low. In the 1980s, this policy was abandoned, and now in the 1990s, as many states face budget deficits, tuition rates are slated to increase even more in the coming years.

4. Private colleges (which also had massive tuition increases in the past decade) lobbied to keep both state and federal scholarship formulas broad enough to include a wide range of income eligibility. Thus students who come from relatively well-off families receive aid to attend expensive private schools rather than the system providing a guarantee of equal access to needy students.

With these trends, 41 percent of the access gains that had been made from 1966 to 1977 were lost by 1987. The proportion of freshmen from low-income families enrolled in universities dropped by nearly half, from 18.5 percent to 9.7 percent.

Students like Linda are not asking for full grant aid. Linda is used to hard work and doesn't blink at the needed $700 of summer earnings and the prospect of taking work-study jobs that often contribute more than $1,000 each year toward living expenses.

Nor is it necessary to increase federal dollars overall. Instead, as the Higher Education Act is reauthorized by Congress next year, existing grant monies need only to be better targeted to the low-income students, in order to reduce their need to rely on such burdensome loans.

To a 17-year-old student outside the economic mainstream, the prospect of signing for loans of $13,300 for college costs can be frightening. It might even be frightening enough to pass up that chance forever.

Talented young people like Joan and Linda should not have to forgo their hopes, nor mortgage their whole future to have the chance to pursue their dreams and contribute back to their communities.

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