Latino Blueprint Offers New Ideas for Financial Aid Policy

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by Charles Dervarics

Deborah Santiago

“Effective financial aid policy means more than just money,” says Deborah Santiago, Excelencia in Education vice president for policy and research.

With the Higher Education Act (HEA) up for renewal this year, a leading Hispanic education organization is seeking to shake up current thinking about federal policy with a collection of new ideas that would re-imagine student financial aid for college.

In a new report, Excelencia in Education proposes to allow students to change the financial aid formula for work-study, allow students to use financial aid for remedial courses and require that students file financial aid forms at the same time they apply to college.

“Effective financial aid policy means more than just money,” says Deborah Santiago, Excelencia in Education vice president for policy and research. “It also means re-imagining aid to serve students well.”

While the new study, Using a Latino Lens to Reimagine Aid Design and Delivery, focuses primarily on the needs of Hispanic students, it also calls for a new terminology to describe much of today’s post-secondary population. Instead of “non-traditional” students, for example, the study calls for adopting the term “post-traditional student.”

The post-traditional student is “a growing majority,” Santiago says. Often, these students work 30 hours or more per week, attend college part time and may not be fully college-ready in major academic subjects.

While the term ‘non-traditional’ generally applies to students older than age 24 who may work full or part time, Santiago argues that the word has outlived its usefulness. “The term ‘non-traditional’ sounds like it’s an exception to the rule,” she says. “‘Post-traditional’ represents an evolution beyond traditional.”

More than 35 percent of students now attend college part time, including more than half of Latino students, the report notes.

To meet the needs of these post-traditional students, Excelencia in Education would undertake a variety of new steps through federal policy. One would be to require the students to complete the Free Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) when they file a college application.

“We require an application for college admission. What if we made a FAFSA application a requirement as well?” she asks. Many students, such as those who earn a GED instead of a high school diploma, may have little knowledge that financial aid is available for college.

Although acknowledging such a requirement would be “controversial” and pose challenges for colleges, depending on their application deadlines, Santiago says “it’s an idea that is worth pursuing.”

Using a Latino Lens also focuses on these hot-button education topics:

Pell Grants — The report recommends converting the main federal need-based aid program to an entitlement that would promote stability in the fast-growing program.

Student loans — Federal policy should convert student loans into grants for low-income students who complete college in a timely manner. The incentive is part of a way of “making expectations for college completion clear to students from the outset” of their college careers.

Remedial education — Students should have the ability to use need-based aid to cover the costs of remedial education classes in math or English. Currently, students cannot use aid for such courses and do not earn college credit for them. As a result, many at-risk students who aspire to college fail to complete these courses. Under Excelencia’s plan, students could use financial aid for certain remedial classes with “proven success in effectively preparing students for college-level work in a timely manner.”

Work-study and campus aid — The report calls for tinkering with a long-standing federal formula for awarding work-study, supplemental education grants and Perkins Loans — the three “campus-based” federal aid programs that are awarded by individual colleges and universities. Excelencia argues that the decades-old formula favors Northeast colleges to the detriment of those in the fast-growing Southwest. The current formula leads to “uneven funding by geography and student eligibility,” the report notes.

Work-study in particular is “a good tool for allowing students to earn money while keeping them on campus,” Santiago says.

Excelencia leaders acknowledge their ideas will generate debate, but some lawmakers say they welcome such discussions.

“College graduation rates are lower than high school graduation rates,” says Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Fla. “We need to help people get through the education pipeline.”

Expanding work-study also would keep low-income students on campus, “where they are better tethered to their college or university.”

But some of the proposals will face major barriers to early approval, says Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, senior Democrat on the House of Representatives’ higher education subcommittee.

Excelencia in Education’s blueprint “has a lot of potential,” Hinojosa says, though he stopped short of endorsing Pell and other provisions due to the current environment of limited federal spending. At a Capitol Hill briefing on the plan, he says he would support many of the ideas “sometime in the future.”

While HEA is up for reauthorization this year, it is unclear whether Congress will try to tackle it. Using a Latino Lens was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is providing funds to 16 organizations to explore new ideas in financial aid and design.

The complete report is at www.edexcelencia.org.

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