Friday, October 10, 2003

Students' college dreams in jeopardy

By Denise Smith Amos
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Walnut Hills High School senior Malcolm Cooper, 17, hopes to major in music in college.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
BOND HILL - Malcolm Cooper is a good student who excels in music.

The Walnut Hills High School senior has been playing tuba since seventh grade, and he performs with the Cincinnati Youth Wind Ensemble and his school's band. He studies vocal music and the trombone, and he plays football.

Malcolm's chances for going to college are good, says his mother, Barbara Cooper - but, like so many other Greater Cincinnati parents, she's worried about how the family can afford tuition.

One avenue of aid - the federal Pell grant - may dry up for the Coopers and thousands of other families nationwide because of eligibility changes that begin in the 2004-2005 school year.

Federal education officials recently amended how they calculate families' eligibility for Pell grants, the backbone of federal financial aid to needy college students.

Officials changed eligibility by revising tax tables used to calculate how much tuition a family can afford to pay on its own. The table tells families in each state what percentage they can deduct from their income to account for state and local taxes.

Links to information about Pell Grants, other federal aid, state aid and scholarships, grants and loans.
That revision will bump up the share families are expected to pay, according to the American Council on Education, which represents about half the nation's colleges and universities.

The move has angered some members of Congress, sparking a movement aimed at barring the Department of Education from using the new tax tables to calculate Pell grant eligibility.

The change could save $270 million. But it will eliminate 84,000 students from the Pell program - and will reduce Pell awards to another 1.5 million students, the council says.

That will hit families like the Coopers, of Bond Hill, hardest. Barbara Cooper, a former charter-school teacher, has been out of work more than a year, and her husband's part-time retail job and modest pension won't be enough. Their annual income is less than $40,000.

"I don't know how we're going to pay for (Malcolm's) college," she said. "It's been very difficult for us. I really want him to go to college and to stay in."

The grants pay $400 to $4,050 a year - depending on family income, size and ability to find other funding sources.

So a family that makes so little that it doesn't pay taxes would probably receive a $4,050 Pell grant. On the other extreme, a family of four with an income of $40,000 usually qualifies for the $400 minimum.

This year, the federal government is spending $11.4 billion on Pell grants for 4.9 million college students, almost one-third of all students in college

But in the 2004-05 school year, about half of the current Pell recipients will get smaller grants or no grant at all.

While Pells are the foundation of college financial aid packages, most students seek a mix of scholarships, awards and loans to pay for their degrees. Still, higher education counselors warn that some colleges bestow their own grants based upon a student's Pell eligibility - and that could prove a double whammy for needy students hit by these changes.

Many colleges could end up shouldering more of the financial aid burden. At the University of Cincinnati, for instance, about 7,000 of its 25,800 undergraduate students receive Pell grants.

Less help from federal sources means less university money will be available to help needy freshmen, said Connie Williams, UC's director of student financial aid.

"We don't have enough funds now to fully fund (low-income) students' tuitions," Williams said. "This would be a blow (to) us."

Tuition at UC for in-state students is $7,623; it's $19,230 for out-of-state students. Dorms cost about $7,000.

The prospect of so many low-income students seeing grant money cut during economic uncertainty has galvanized Democrats and a few Republicans in Congress.

Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., persuaded the Senate last month to approve a measure that would bar the Department of Education from using the tables to calculate Pell grant eligibility. In the House, Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., and Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., are circulating a letter urging colleagues to support Corzine's measure.

So far, 75 members have signed on, including three additional Republicans.

Countering that, Republican Reps. John Boehner of Ohio and Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of California sent letters last week to House members saying the revisions won't cut anyone from Pell eligibility and pointed out that the number of Pell recipients may grow next year.

Barbara Cooper's not taking any chances. She says she'll redouble her efforts to find additional college money and to find another job.

Gannett News Service reporter Katherine Hutt Scott contributed.


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