Ready, Set, Hike: Today’s Starting Lineup Of Student Aid Programs

With football season in full gear, I thought it would be helpful to give you today’s starting lineup of federal student aid programs. No matter what your budget resources, or where your child is in the process of preparing for, applying to or attending college, these are the eleven federal programs (eight undergraduate and three graduate) of which you should be aware. It’s time for the first snap!

With football season in full gear, I thought it would be helpful to give you today’s starting lineup of federal student aid programs. No matter what your budget resources, or where your child is in the process of preparing for, applying to or attending college, these are the eleven federal programs (eight undergraduate and three graduate) of which you should be aware. It’s time for the first snap!

Starting at quarterback, the cornerstone of any team, is the Federal Pell Grant Program. Pell Grants are awarded to the neediest students and they are the grant of first resort. In the last academic year, Pell Grants helped more than 4.8 million undergraduate students attend college. The average grant was $2,436, and the average family income of recipients was $19,328. Unfortunately, much like the aging quarterback who can no longer tuck the ball next to his belly and run downfield, the Pell Grant program is failing to keep pace with inflation, with today’s maximum grant of $4,050 dropping 15 percent in constant dollars since 1975.

At running back are two campus-based programs which provide additional help to students who need help financing their education.

Similar to a workhorse fullback who can block and, on occasion, carry the ball for substantial yards downfield, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) program provides additional assistance to Pell Grant recipients in order of need, with a maximum of $4,000 dispensed. In Fiscal Year (FY) 2004, this program provided $770 million in grants to nearly 1.3 million students at more than 3,700 colleges and universities. SEOGs are not as well known as some of the other student aid “players,” but they are an efficient, cost-effective way to aid students.

The Federal Work-Study (FWS) program is comparable to the halfback who can break the game open. FWS, which aided more than 850,000 students at more than 3,300 schools last year, is often the difference-maker when it comes to college being affordable for a low- or moderate-income family. In FY 2004, more than $1 billion was awarded from the U.S. Treasury, with federal funds covering up to 75 percent of student wages, and the remainder paid by the institution, employer or another donor.

Wide receivers, sometimes called split ends or a flanker, roam the side of a football field and can often stir the crowd with an outstanding fingertip grab or dramatic catch-and-run of an ordinary pass. The wide receivers of student aid are the TRIO, GEAR UP and LEAP programs.

TRIO is not an acronym and I have no idea where the name was born. What I do know is that TRIO services are extremely valuable in helping low-income Americans to enter college, graduate and launch a career. TRIO services, which are community-based, offer help in choosing a college; tutoring in reading, writing and math; personal, financial and career counseling; and special instruction in study skills. Two-thirds of TRIO programs come from families with incomes of less than $24,000 and in which neither parent graduated from college. More than 2,600 TRIO programs currently serve 872,000 low-income students,

GEAR-UP is an acronym, and it stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. Like a wide receiver with good hands, GEAR-UP can snare some unlikely students and turn them college bound. The program uses a coordinated K-16 approach and is designed to leverage private matching resources beyond the available federal monies. Since 1999, GEAR-UP has served more than 2.3 million low-income students in 47 states and the District of Columbia.

LEAP, an acronym for Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnerships (LEAP), is a program that can take a short pass, i.e. an incentive grant from the feds, and turn it into a long gain when combined with matching state dollars. Originally set up as a dollar-for-dollar match, the most recent reauthorization of the Higher Education Act expanded the program to make over $30 million available for additional activities, such as early intervention programs, to states which are willing to match each federal dollar with two state dollars.

With the ball-handling positions already covered, what remains of our student aid starting lineup is the offensive line, not heroic to be sure, but a critical component of any team’s success. The tackle positions are filled by the bread-and-butter undergraduate student loan programs, the Stafford and the Perkins.

The Stafford loan is provided to students at colleges and universities through the use of private lenders, guaranty agencies or, at some schools, directly from the institution via capital from the U.S. Treasury. In Academic Year 2002-2003, 6.3 million subsidized Stafford loans were issued, totaling a “game-changing block” from the federal government to the tune of more than $42 billion dollars. Students must demonstrate financial need to be eligible for subsidized Stafford loans and they are not required to pay interest on the loans while they attend school, nor for six months after they graduate.

Federal Perkins Loans, akin to the grizzled old veteran offensive linesman, are a program that is intended to target not only needy students, but also those institutions which take a special pride in finding and educating students from low-income families. A key component of the program’s success is the central role of the college or university in originating, servicing and collecting on these loans, while also providing loan counseling for the borrower. Since its inception, more than 10 million students have received more than $15 billion in loans from the Perkins program. That is serious money, even for the federal government.

Perkins loans may also be used for post-graduate study. Graduate students are increasingly a focus of student aid programs, especially those efforts which can shorten time to graduation and/or create incentives for students to enter careers that are essential, but not particularly lucrative.
The remainder of our starting offensive line is made up of federal aid programs for graduate students. These programs support a long-term strategy for increasing the number of quality students who prepare for a career in research or teaching.

At center is our final acronym, Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need, known in graduate school circles as GAANN. This program awards funds through a competitive program that currently is focused on filling research and teaching needs in designated fields such as math, biology, physics, chemistry, engineering and computer science. The guard positions are filled by the Javits Fellowship program and the Thurgood Marshall Legal Educational Opportunity Program. The Javits program, akin to the pulling guard plowing ahead of a runner, is the only federal program that provides portable scholarships to those students seeking graduate degrees in the arts, humanities and social sciences. The Marshall program helps disadvantaged students gain access to and complete law school through a comprehensive program.

So that is the Student Aid starting team, a disparate group of eleven federal programs, each designed to fill a specific role but also which, when taken together, can knock over some substantial barriers to entry and make a higher education within reach for millions of low- and moderate-income Americans.

College Parents of America is a proud supporter of the Student Aid Alliance, a group representing a cross-section of interests, but sharing a common dedication to making college possible for any student with the talent and desire to succeed, regardless of his or her economic circumstances. The Student Aid Alliance supports the continuation and effective management of each of these eleven federal programs.