Protect Student Aid

FINANCIAL aid for college and university students has so far come through the federal budget-cutting gantlet relatively unscathed. But that could change when the House gets around to its budget resolution in May.

Committees that recommend funding levels for the various student-loan and grant programs will feel pressure to slice here as elsewhere. But before the ax falls, a few things to consider:

First, just how ''fat'' are these programs -- Pell grants, for instance, that go to lower-income students? They currently serve 3.7 million students at a cost, last year, of $6.4 billion. But the grants have lost 25 percent of their value to inflation over the last decade.

Second, a lot of aid has already been shifted from grants to loans. Some in Congress want to remove the in-college interest exemption on loans. That exemption lets the government pick up interest payments during the years a student is actually in school. Doing away with the exemption would add 20 percent to the amount graduates will have to pay off themselves. Maybe a degree does give people greater ability to handle such debt, but a lot of students, and their families, may think twice about it.

Third, schools are having a tough time financing student aid even with the help now offered by Washington. If federal aid takes a whack in Congress, college doors may not slam shut on low- and moderate-income students, but they will almost certainly not be so wide open as before. More institutions will have to move away from ''need-blind'' admissions, based only on merit.

No one would argue that student loans and grants don't need scrutiny. Efficiency is important -- which is why more student loans are being given directly by the government, without the expense of working through private financial institutions. Fraud and loan default have to be minimized -- which is why schools prone to these practices have been weeded out.

Last year, 6 million students received some form of aid from the federal government, for a total of $31.4 billion. That's a huge investment, but the return to society is huge too -- in sharpened intellects, greater wealth, enhanced opportunity.

Even with a doubling or tripling of college tuitions over the past 20 years, college enrollment continues to climb. People know it's a worthwhile investment, no matter how hard to make. It would be a shame if cutbacks in federal aid make it too hard for many.

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