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Rising Costs Pricing Millions Out of College, Committee Says

Education: Estimates are that more than 4 million qualified graduates this decade won't be able to go to four-year schools.

June 27, 2002|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Limited scholarship funds and rising tuition costs have created financial hardships that will prevent more than 4 million qualified high school graduates this decade from attending four-year colleges, a federal advisory group asserted Wednesday.

The Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance released a report that shows the burden of college costs will fall hardest on students from families with incomes of less than $50,000 a year.

Juliet V. Garcia, the committee's chairwoman and president of the University of Texas at Brownsville, said that financial barriers are forcing students from low- and moderate-income families to take on excessive debt or work excessive hours to attend college full time. Speaking at a Washington news conference, she blamed the problem on "a severe shortage" of scholarship money for needy students. "Without increases in grant aid, these trends are irreversible," she said.

Garcia said the report rebutted the argument made by some education experts that the biggest barrier preventing low- and moderate-income students from attending college is not money, but the poor educational preparation they receive before reaching college age.

The report was seized upon as political ammunition by student aid advocates to call on the Bush administration to increase such assistance as federal Pell Grants.

Titled "Empty Promises," the report focused on students who have taken college preparatory courses and maintained grade averages of B minus or better. Among students meeting those qualifications from low-income families--defined as families with incomes of less than $25,000 a year--48% don't go to four-year schools, it said. In addition, 22% of these students don't pursue any secondary education: four-year schools, community colleges or trade schools.

By contrast, the report said only 16% of such students from families with incomes exceeding $75,000 don't go to a four-year school; 4% fail to attend any college.

A report released last fall found that the annual cost of tuition and room and board nationally averaged $9,008 at four-year public universities and $23,578 at private four-year schools.

Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, an umbrella organization representing public and private colleges, said the report documents "how far we have to go in the United States to make sure all Americans have equal access to post-secondary education."

"The participation gap between low- and upper-income students is the same as 35 years ago," Hartle added. "Smart poor kids go to college at the same rate as stupid rich kids, and that's a tragedy."

The advisory committee, which advises Congress and the U.S. Department of Education, concluded that 406,000 qualified high school graduates from families with incomes below $50,000 did not attend four-year schools this year. Of those students, 168,000 didn't attend community colleges or trade schools either. The committee blamed financial barriers for all of those cases of students not attending college.

By 2010, the committee said, the number of qualified students from families with incomes below $50,000 who won't attend four-year colleges within two years of graduating high school will be 4.4 million. It calculated that the number who won't seek any post-secondary education will total 2 million.

Garcia said the affordability problem will be aggravated by the current wave of tuition increases at public schools across the country in states struggling with budget crises. California's college systems have said they don't plan increases in attendance fees next year for state residents, but lawmakers have started to raise the possibility of hikes.

The only solution the report provided was a call for federal and state governments, along with individual colleges, to provide more grants for students from low- and moderate-income families.

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