As a freshman, Temple University student Arsema Solomon needed to borrow $5,000 to cover college expenses that were not met by grants, some limited family help and a part-time...
PHILADELPHIA As a freshman, Temple University student Arsema Solomon needed to borrow $5,000 to cover college expenses that were not met by grants, some limited family help and a part-time job.
Three years later, Solomon has added a night shift as a bank teller to her day job but mounting costs have forced her to double her student-loan load, to $10,000 a year.
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Her financial burden may be even greater next year, if the Bush administration goes ahead with a plan to change the Pell Grant funding formula.
“I already work full time to supplement my grants and loans,” Solomon said. “But I guess I’d just work more.”
If the formula is changed, an estimated 90,000 students receiving Pell grants would become ineligible for the program, and an additional 1.2 million students would see their grants shaved by $200 to $300, according to a financial-aid advisory committee created by Congress.
All financial-aid administrators agreed their campuses would feel the pinch, especially public universities such as Temple and Rutgers University in Camden, N.J., where more than a third of all students receive Pell grants. But it is too soon to tell exactly what the impact would be.
The Pell program, which was authorized in 1972, is the principal federal grant program for higher education. About 5 million students a year now receive Pell grants, splitting $12.5 billion.
Congress has invested heavily in the program in recent years, but the Pell applicant pool has grown so quickly up 37 percent in the past decade that appropriations still routinely lag behind demand.
Consequently, Congress has frozen the size of Pell awards for the past three years at $4,050 annually an amount given only to the neediest students.
The trouble is, nobody froze college-related expenses.
The formula change being considered would update antiquated tax information the Education Department has used to help determine Pell eligibility and need. The tax tables currently in use were compiled in 1988.
Although new tax tables would be a more accurate reflection of student need, the adjustments would end up hurting far more students than they would help, said Brian Fitzgerald, director of the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, which was created by Congress.
Republicans in Congress have urged the changes over the objections of Democrats, most notably Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J.
Congressional Republicans argue that by more accurately evaluating current need, more money might be available in future years to increase the grant size past $4,050 for the neediest students.
The Pell program annually spends about $1 billion more than it is appropriated. Until that gap is closed, the maximum grant is likely to remain capped.
While Fitzgerald agrees newer tax tables must eventually be used, he said a better approach would be to phase in the changes so students do not suddenly see their grants drop precipitously or, worse, discover they are no longer eligible.
“It’s a one-time shock, but it’s a big shock,” he said.