More Ready for College, Fewer Able to Pay ; Nearly Half of Qualified Low- and Middle-Income Students Can't Get Needed Aid

Article excerpt

Even as the nation launches sweeping reforms to get kids ready for college, new trends signal that hundreds of thousands who make the grade won't be able to afford to go.

This trend is hitting middle-income families, as well as the poorest first-generation immigrants. It's not inevitable. But, for now, it's only getting worse.

Here's the pattern: Rising college tuition, which has outpaced inflation since the 1980s. Less need-based student aid to pay it. And record levels of personal debt at the end of it. For many families, a college education is a bridge too far.

Nearly half of all qualified low- and moderate-income high school graduates couldn't attend a four-year college this year. By 2010, that will add up to 4.4 million students, according to a report released Wednesday by a Congress-appointed commission on financial aid in America.

Several studies in recent years have raised alarms about how inaccessible college is becoming, but none as emphatically as this one, which for the first time looks both at financial data and information about student academic preparedness.

For a nation that in 1965 committed to the promise that no student should be turned away from higher education because they can't pay for it, it's a sobering conclusion.

Moreover, it comes at a time when most states face budget deficits they are resolving in part by further cutbacks in higher education. This was the response of state legislatures to the most recent recessions in the early 1980s and 1990s. But today's budget decreases - and double-digit tuition increases at some state colleges and universities in recent months - are making access an even more remote prospect for many students.

Budget cuts for colleges

"The trend is to cut budgets for higher education and increase tuition. We're looking at another famine in higher education," says Marga Torrence, a policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Midyear budget cuts in Wisconsin even prompted a freeze of admissions at state universities, after which the legislature proposed cutting another $44 million in higher education funding.

The new report, released by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, finds that the students being shut out of higher education aren't just kids in lower-income brackets. They are also students who have done the right things to get ready for college: They have taken college preparatory courses, graduated near the top half of their classes, maintained an acceptable grade-point average and SAT scores. …


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