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Report warns of coming "Access Crisis"

February 26, 2001

More than 35 years after the creation of federal student-aid programs, the gap between students from low- and high-income families able to pursue a college education is as wide as ever, according to a report released this week by a congressional advisory committee.

Further, if the government doesn't "immediately revitalize" its need-based student-aid programs, the country will face an "access crisis" that could profoundly impact the country's well being.

According to the report, called "Access Denied: Restoring the Nation's Commitment to Equal Educational Opportunity," the percentage of college-bound high school grads from families earning below $25,000 per year lags 32 percent behind families earning above $75,000.

Also noteworthy was the committee's finding that low-income students attend four-year colleges at half the rate of their higher-income peers, and they graduate from those institutions in similarly small proportions.

The rapidly growing number of college-age students is fueling the crisis. By 2015, the number of 18- to 24-year olds in the country is expected to increase by 1.6 million. Half of those students are expected to come from financially disadvantaged families.

Clinton's tuition-tax credit didn't help low-income families, who don't pay taxes, notes the report. And although the former president's administration increased Pell Grant awards, the increases didn't make up for losses suffered in the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, the maximum Pell award has fallen from 84 percent of the cost of public four-year institutions in 1975 to 39 percent in 1999-2000.

States also have contributed to the problem, pouring aid into politically popular merit-based programs, with grants based on grades rather than financial need, the report says.

"Our nation is at a very critical juncture, one that will determine our economic future for a significant portion of this century, and the economic opportunity available to many Americans," Juliet V. Garcia, president of the University of Texas at Brownsville and chair of the advisory committee said on unveiling the report.