No Student Left Behind

By Flower, Ruth | Academe, May/June 2001 | Go to article overview

No Student Left Behind


Flower, Ruth, Academe


THE COST OF COLLEGE is a center of attraction once again, as senators and representatives consider expanded tax benefits for families of college students. Congress responded to a media alarm in 1997 by appointing the Commission on the Cost of Higher Education. After a year of study, the commission reported that the average price of attendance at a four-year public institution had indeed doubled between 1987 and 1996. (Private colleges trailed behind with a mere 84 percent increase.)

Congress received the report and looked for remedies. Having already liberalized the federal student-loan programs to make them more available to middle- and upper-income families, senators and representatives pressed for additional assistance in the form of tax relief.

But Congress may have targeted the wrong group for relief. This year, a report from the Department of Education's Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance raises some new questions. The committee reports that, as a percentage of family income, the average cost of a college education did not rise for middle- and upper-income families, even over the past twenty-five years. College costs rose as a percentage of family income for only one group-- the lowest-income group. (Thomas Mortenson explores these issues in detail in his article in the November-December 2000 issue of Academe.)

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that academically qualified students from higher-income families continue to be twice as likely to pursue a college education as those from lower-income families. Current tax relief proposals don't reach families with incomes of $15,000 (the average family income for federal Pell Grant recipients), and the ability to remove funds without penalty from an Independent Retirement Account is meaningless to families with so few assets.

The federal government has tools to address this issue--it is actually the largest provider of financial aid for low-- income students, through a conglomerate of grants, loans, and work opportunities. The Pell Grant is the primary vehicle for undergraduate, need-based student aid. Funded at nearly $9 billion for fiscal 2001, it assists nearly 4 million students--a quarter of the undergraduate student population.

The problem with the Pell Grant is the amount of aid available to the individual student. In 1979-80, when the Pell Grant was young and in full swing, it covered 77 percent of the cost of tuition, fees, books, and on-campus room and board at the average four-- year public college. …

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