WASHINGTON - Rising tuition charges and a shortfall in federal and state grants for low- and moderate-income students will keep more than 400,000 qualified high school graduates from attending four-year colleges this fall and prevent nearly 170,000 of them from continuing their education, a federal advisory committee reported yesterday.
The national study is the latest in a series of dire warnings that financial barriers are severely limiting the entry of qualified candidates to college, even as high schools work to better prepare students for higher education.
Using US Education Department data, the committee found that 48 percent of all college-qualified, low-income students and 43 percent of students from moderate-income families will not attend four-year colleges because of financial barriers. The panel also found that 22 percent of low-income students and 16 percent of moderate-income students will not go to any college. The department defines low-income families as those that earn less than $25,000 each year and moderate-income families as those earning $25,000 to $50,000.
''The bottom line is that a really significant number of low-income students who graduate from high school fully prepared and meeting the criteria to attend college can't afford to go,'' said Brian Fitzgerald, staff director of the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. ''It belies the consensus that if we just fix elementary and secondary schools, we've solved our education problems.''
Fitzgerald said financial aid issues will grow more severe over the next decade, a bulge made up disproportionately of minorities and low-income students. Over a 10-year period, the report shows, 4.4 million high school graduates will not be able to attend four-year colleges, and 2 million will attend no college at all. Those who continue their education are likely to enroll in community colleges or trade schools, the report said.
This year, 1.68 million graduating high-school seniors were academically prepared for college, Fitzgerald said.
The committee, whose members are appointed by Congress and the Education Department, was created in 1986 to advise federal policy makers on student financial-aid issues.
The panel recommended that the federal government increase the number and size of Pell grants, the primary source of federal aid for low-income college students.
Nearly 4.5 million students receive Pell grants, and Congress is preparing to add $1 billion to the current budget of $10.3 billion, because of a shortfall in the grant program this year.
President Bush has proposed $10.9 billion for Pell grants in fiscal 2003, an amount the White House says is adequate. But some Democrats say that figure represents a cut in funding and would not be enough to provide all students the aid they need.
''We must find the resources to reverse these trends,'' said Juliet Garcia, chair of the advisory committee and president of the University of Texas at Brownsville. ''No new financing strategies will solve it. Only an increase in grant aid will work.''
Garcia said it is a myth that financial aid packages combining government or institutional grants, loans, and campus work cover college costs or meet the needs of half of all college-qualified students. The report estimates that on average, low-income families face $3,800 annually in college expenses beyond financial aid. Without student loans and jobs, the families' unmet need would be $7,500, one-third of their income, Garcia said.
While the Pell Grant program has grown substantially in recent years and the maximum annual award now stands at $4,000, it has not kept pace with rising college tuition charges, and its purchasing power is less than it was in the late 1970s, the advisory committee said. The situation is likely to get worse, higher-education groups say, because the recession has cut deeply into state budget revenues and appropriations for public colleges and universities are being pinched.
Tuition increases were held to 5 to 6 percent annually over the last five years, but are headed for double-digit increases on many campuses this fall, and state grants to students have been trimmed.
''There is a $40 to $50 billion hole out there in funding that should be available to public colleges and universities, and it's a big problem in nearly every state,'' said Edward Elmendorf, senior vice president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. ''It's not going to go away in 2003, and it might even get worse.''
Gurleen Singh, 20, of Malden, entered Northeastern on a $24,000 financial aid package that included government and school grants. She also worked 10 hours a week and tried to borrow textbooks from friends to reduce costs. For her second year, she applied for aid again but received an offer of $6,000, even though her family income dropped and tuition was more than $15,000, plus room, board, and fees. Singh said she had to drop out of school, move in with her mother, and now attends the University of Massachusetts at Boston with the help of a $1,000 Pell grant.
''Northeastern told me that they had just run out of funds and that they give preference to starting freshmen,'' Singh said. ''It has been horrible to have to stop halfway and adjust to a whole new college atmosphere.''
Jeff Andrade, deputy assistant secretary for post-secondary education in the Bush adminstration, said the advisory committee was right in identifying the problem of financial access to college for the neediest students but ''dodged ... and was afraid to tackle'' the issue of soaring college costs.
''College costs are out of whack, not the resources that we have made available,'' Andrade said. The Pell grant program has grown by $3.3 billion since President Bush took office, he said.
Andrade said the Bush administration is committed to targeting Pell grants to the neediest students and said it would use the renewal of the 1965 Higher Education Act, set to begin in Congress next year, to explore ways to lower college costs.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is now chairman of the Senate committee that will review the reauthorization, said the report was ''definitive proof that we need to do more, much more, to ensure that every child who graduates from high school prepared for college has the financial resources to earn a bachelor's degree.''
Globe Correspondent Emily Ramshaw contributed to this report.
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