Cuts in College Aid Dim American Dream

June 14, 2005 | New York Daily News |

Senior Fellow Jennifer Wheary outlines the latest Government Accounting Office estimates released late last month show that nearly 2 million low- and moderate-income students will see their Pell grants decrease or disappear for the 2005-06 school year.

Three million students are graduating from high school this year. About 600,000 of them hail from immigrant families, a surprisingly large number. But here is something even more astounding. By cutting off access to one of the main pathways to economic mobility — a college education — we are making it harder for these students to pursue the American Dream.

Government Accounting Office estimates released late last month show that nearly 2 million low- and moderate-income students will see their Pell grants decrease or disappear for the 2005-06 school year. Students from families with incomes in the $25,000 range will likely see their Stafford loans decrease as well.

The 2006 federal budget attacks other key programs that support college entry and affordability. These include Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), a large-scale effort that helps low-income students prepare for and succeed in college, and the Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnerships (LEAP) program, which provides $167 million a year to needy students.

These cuts come when the cost of attending a four-year state college has grown 56% over the past two decades — even adjusting for inflation. Average student loan indebtedness increased 66% between 1997 and 2003 alone. About a fourth of college students report using credit cards to pay for school.

Financial aid and college affordability are often deciding factors in whether students from immigrant families go to school. Nearly seven of 10 Hispanic students live in immigrant households. When they are asked why they opt out of college, three-quarters cite lack of financial aid.

For immigrant students who do decide to attend school, financial pressures and fear of debt mean more part-time attendance and entry into the lowest-cost schooling options — even if those options do not provide the best learning environment. Many immigrant students who drop out of college cite high debt and lack of financial resources as the reasons.

New York City's high schools serving immigrants graduate more students and send more students on to post-secondary schooling than the citywide average. But despite having the same academic talents and achievements as nonimmigrant students, graduates of the city's immigrant-focused schools are four times as likely to attend two-year colleges. It's one thing if the choice to not attend college or to attend a two-year versus a four-year school is because of students' preferences. But it's another thing if the choice reflects a lack of options.

The successful pursuit of the American Dream by millions of immigrants has made our nation great. We must support, rather than cut, programs benefiting first-generation and low-income students. We must control escalating college costs. We must make sure opportunity is on the agenda for everyone.

Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos, a public policy organization in New York.