Federal financial aid faces an uncertain future

Many students' financial aid packages are in question for the upcoming school year, as legislators struggle to find enough funds to sustain the federal Pell Grant program.

Based on financial need, and expected family contribution, these grants provide low-income families with up to $4,000 per year for tuition, according to Brian Lee Sang, AU's director of Financial Aid.

This year Congress is reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, legislation that has wide-reaching effects on the federal aid that students can receive.

With the weak economy, the Department of Education had talked of plans to cut students off from Pell Grants after their second years of college, according to the University of California-Berkeley Web site.

These recent shortfalls are in contrast to February, when President George W. Bush announced his plans for a $1.9 billion increase, raising the total to $12.7 billion, in funding to the federal Pell Grants to help at least 1,000,000 more low-income students attend college, according to the Department of Education's Web site.

According to Lee Sang, no such increases are foreseeable.

"Pell Grants are dependent on the student's need level each year, and with a bad economy more students will be applying for the same amount of money available," Lee Sang said. "You have to reapply each school year based on your family's income for that year."

For the 2002 school year, statistics provided by AU's Financial Aid office indicate that about 660 AU students received Pell Grants. These awards range from $400 to $4,000, with the average AU student receiving around $2,500 for last year.

Lee Sang added, "In a situation like this, it will hurt students in community and state colleges more than private colleges, as AU tries to make up the difference in the cuts."

"I don't think a reduction would affect my ability to stay here, but it would affect my parents' ability to retire in the foreseeable future," said Hal Baillie, a freshman in the School of International Service.

According to the AU Web site, an increase of between five and six percent for the costs of tuition, room and board is in the budget for the 2004-2005 school year, but the scholarships AU offers should rise at a similar rate. One central issue of the debate in Congress surrounds the method by which the Department of Education determines who will receive how much each year.

The formula, which is still using tax rates from 1988, has come under fire, as many states have lowered their taxes, thus increasing many families' income. These families could therefore be expected to contribute more for a student's tuition, even though the current figures do not reflect that, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Department of Education officials did not return calls by press time.

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