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Rethinking financial aid

Who should get financial aid?

In recent years, federal policy has targeted middle-income families. At the state level, the focus has been on rewarding students with great grades and qualifications - regardless of financial need.

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Now some advocates are pushing for a renewed commitment to ensuring that those at the lowest end of the income scale have a crack at a college education.

Since 1993, state-funded aid programs based on merit have increased 336 percent. By comparison, funding for aid based on need has risen 88 percent. The federal Pell grant, which in 1975 covered 84 percent of the cost of a four-year public college, now pays just 39 percent of the bill.

What that adds up to is a lot of students who can't pay for college - and will continue to be locked out if aid programs based on need are not better funded.

That's the conclusion of an advisory committee to the US Department of Education and Congress. According to its findings, published last week, the current generation of primary school students will yield a bumper crop of students ready to enroll in college by 2015. The majority will not be white - and nearly half of minority applicants will come from families that can contribute only nominally to college costs.

For wealthy families, the cost of college as a percentage of real income is about 7 percent. For low-income families, that figure is 62 percent. Even with grants, loans, and personal funds, low-income students often face a shortfall that can shut the door on college.

In a prosperous age, and one which beats the drum for all students to aim for college, it's a situation that demands rethinking.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society