>>> heather Valentine <[log in to unmask]> 9/20/2006 9:44 AM
Education Leaders Say Financial Barriers to Degree Attainment Require
Urgent Response

By Jane R. Porter

Higher-education leaders came together on Tuesday to discuss a recent
report on financial barriers to college access and degree completion,
and warned that a failure to find solutions could threaten not only the
prospects of individual students but the status of the nation as a

The session was part of a hearing held by the Advisory Committee on
Student Financial Assistance, a panel that advises Congress and that
released last week's report
( on financial
barriers for students from low- to moderate-income families (The
Chronicle (, 09/14/06
[Note: Subscription Required]). 

William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and
one of the presenters at the session, expressed concern with the
report's findings about the effects of rising college costs and
insufficient financial aid for disadvantaged students. "We as a nation
are at risk of creating a permanent underclass," he said. 

The report, "Mortgaging Our Future: How Financial Barriers to College
Undercut America's Global Competitiveness," has a particular urgency, he
said, because of coming mass retirements of baby boomers and the risk of
replacing them with less qualified candidates, he said. 

Arnold L. Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in
Education and one of the panelists, said the report could serve as a way
to "galvanize Americans in understanding what the stakes really are" in
the persistence of such financial barriers. 

Mr. Mitchem, whose organization lobbies on behalf of the federal TRIO
programs for disadvantaged students, was among several panel members who
expressed alarm at the report's estimate that up to 2.4-million
bachelor's degrees will be lost in this decade because of financial

Another speaker, A. Dallas Martin Jr., president of the National
Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, cautioned that the
nation's competitiveness could become "an endangered species" if the
recommendations presented in the report are not followed. 

Panelists focused on the committee's six proposed solutions, the most
important of which called for strengthening partnerships on the federal,
state, and institutional level to help increase need-based aid. 

But controlling the rapid growth in merit-based aid is another critical
approach to curbing the problem. Mr. Kirwan said merit-based awards have
increased by 240 percent in the past decade, compared with a 56-percent
increase in need-based aid. 

David S. Baime, vice president for government relations at the American
Association of Community Colleges, told the group that the trend toward
merit-based aid is a "very dangerous course" for the nation to be
taking. Merit-based programs are often poorly targeted, he said,
excluding part-time students and those working toward a certificate
instead of a degree. 

Mr. Kirwan suggested that models already developed by highly selective
colleges and universities be applied on a larger scale to all
institutions of higher education. Programs that incorporate Work-Study
opportunities and federal grants to help offset the cost of attending
college have proven to be successful and require collaboration between
the government, the state, and the college or university. 

Mr. Baime expressed particular concern with the report's findings that
only 19 percent of low-income qualified students who completed
trigonometry in high school and entered a two-year higher-education
program with the expectation of earning a bachelor's degree went on to
receive that degree, versus 69 percent of similar students who entered a
four-year college. He echoed the report's suggestion that the transition
from two-year to four-year colleges be made easier for students. 

Mr. Baime also supported another of the report's recommendations, which
called for increased support of remedial programs in colleges. More than
half of all community-college students receive some sort of remedial
instruction, he said, calling that a strong indicator of the need for
such programs. 

David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent
Colleges and Universities, was alarmed at the increasing reliance on
loans, pointing out that "25 percent of all students are now going to
college on their credit cards." Policy makers should counter that trend
with more need-based aid, he said, citing the Pell Grant program as an
effective solution that has not received sufficient federal support. 

Panelists also agreed that improving early-intervention programs in
elementary and secondary schools for students from lower-income families
would help ensure that they are better prepared for bachelor's-degree
programs. Sarita E. Brown, president of Excelencia in Education Inc.,
which advocates for programs to increase the educational attainment of
Hispanic students, stressed the importance of redefining the notion of
higher education as a national rather than simply a private good. 

Mr. Warren and other panelists agreed. "Student aid has to be seen as
an investment," he said, "not an expenditure." 

The morning discussion was followed by a session on the study of
college-textbook pricing, which examined how policy options and methods
of increased communication can help regulate book prices. The session
was the first of a number of such hearings that will be held around the
country. Findings and recommendations from those hearings will be
delivered to the U.S. House of Representatives education committee next