A panel of college financial aid experts, citing the rising share of scholarships awarded to affluent students, called Wednesday for government policymakers and school administrators to shift more aid to the financially neediest students.
Despite an unfavorable economic climate, the panel put together by the College Board recommended dramatically expanding the federal government's Pell Grant program, the main vehicle for awarding scholarships to low-income students.
"Based on our research, it is clear that there are serious signs of stress on our country's financial aid system, and that in some key areas the system is headed in the wrong direction," said Michael McPherson, co-chairman of the National Dialogue on Student Financial Aid, a group of several dozen experts brought together in 2001 by the College Board, a nonprofit group that owns the SAT college admissions test.
McPherson, president of Macalester College in Minnesota, cited figures showing the erosion over the last three decades in the share of college-related costs covered by the Pell Grant. Today, it provides a maximum annual grant of $4,000, or a little more than 40% of what the College Board says is the $9,700 average cost of tuition, fees and living expenses at public four-year schools. The panel endorsed more than doubling the Pell Grant to the $9,700 level.
Although other higher education experts supported the College Board group's recommendations, many were skeptical of their chances. They cited the federal push for tax cuts, along with state budget squeezes.
"It's hard to disagree with anything here. The problem is, I don't see it happening," said William G. Tierney, director of USC's Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis.
Patrick M. Callan of the nonprofit National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in San Jose faulted the report for failing to call on colleges and universities to hold down tuition hikes. "If we don't slow that down, I don't think financial aid will ever keep up," he said.
The report was intended to influence debate on the Higher Education Act, which is up for renewal in Congress next fall.
Many of the researchers, university and financial aid administrators and others in the College Board effort have criticized state financial-aid policies too.
Studies by Donald E. Heller, a senior research associate with the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State, have found that state grants have risen swiftly for students from high-income families -- far faster than for low-income students. Heller has also found that, between 1992-93 and 1999-2000, grants directly from colleges and universities to students from the highest-income families grew twice as fast as they did for those from the lowest-income families.
He said the focus needs to be returned to "using financial need as the criterion for awarding aid. Those were the original principles that the country adhered to starting with the Higher Education Act in 1965, but in the last decade we've really drifted away from financial need and more toward merit."