Education is once again prominently
featured in the 2004 presidential campaign, but the candidates have
largely neglected issues of higher education. In particular, the
affordability of a college education for lower-income students is
an issue of critical importance that has not attracted nearly
enough attention.

Nationally, public university tuition rose by 14 percent in the
2003-04 school year to an average cost of $4,694 a year. Despite
the increase in tuition costs, federal education grants for
low-income students known as Pell Grants have not grown to cover
the gap. The federal government has increased funding for Pell
Grants by $1 billion dollars a year, but has capped each grant at
$4,050 per person in an attempt to distribute funds to more people.
Thirty years ago, Pell Grants covered 84 percent of the cost of a
four-year public institution; today it covers 40 percent. The end
result is that the average public university student graduates with
about $20,000 in debt.

The increasing inability of low-income students to afford higher
education has contributed to the polarizing rich-poor gap among
college students. According to a report by the Century Foundation,
nine in 10 high school graduates from families earning more than
$80,000 a year attend college, compared to just six in 10 from
families earning less than $33,000 a year. The report further
concludes that at the nation’s 146 most selective colleges,
only 3 percent of students come from the lowest socioeconomic
quarter, compared to 74 percent from the top quarter. Some
impoverished students have decided to opt out of attending college
altogether. According to U.S. Rep. Howard McKean (R-Calif.), nearly
50 percent of lower-income college-bound students will not receive
college degrees due to financial considerations. Fanning the flame,
state deficits have led to massive cuts in state funding for public
universities, forcing students and their families to shoulder even
more of the burden.

Sen. John Kerry has proposed measures to help bail state
governments out of their budget crises so that states can provide
the necessary funds to their public institutions. Kerry has also
proposed a $4,000 tax credit in order to finance post-secondary
education. Unfortunately Kerry has no current proposal to increase
the amount of money for individual Pell Grants. Furthermore, Kerry
has scaled back his service plan for college-bound students, which
originally required two years of public service in exchange for the
government’s sponsorship of college education. With the
affordability of higher education highly in question for
lower-income students, Kerry needs to take a more proactive
stance.

President Bush has proposed additional funding for Pell Grants,
including a proposal that would extend them year-round. Bush
promised in the 2000 campaign to increase the maximum Pell Grant
award, a promise he has currently failed to keep. If Bush is truly
committed to making college education more affordable for
lower-income students, he ought to keep his campaign promises.

A few colleges have recently taken the initiative to reverse
growing income disparities between college-bound students.
Princeton and Harvard Universities, and the Universities of
Virginia and North Carolina at Chapel Hill have all taken measures
to replace low-income student loans with grants, which do not need
to be repaid. University President Mary Sue Coleman and the
University Board of Regents should work to enact similar measures
to make the University more accessible to low income students.
Coleman recently told the Daily that the University may need to
move in that direction in order to keep its doors open to students
from all socio-economic backgrounds.

A college education is more important than ever in order to
achieve success and provide for a family. Saddling low-income
students with an increasing load of debt unfairly impedes future
economic opportunities for them. Both presidential candidates
should place Pell Grants at the forefront of the education debate,
and the University should follow the lead of other colleges in
replacing student loans in favor of grants for students who need
help financing their educations.

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