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Congress is tightening access to financial aid, cheating lower-income students out of first-class higher education.

Published: Thursday, January 6, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 5, 2005 at 10:24 p.m.

The news that the University of Florida has attracted more National Merit scholars this year than any other public institution in America only confirms that UF is truly becoming one of the nation's premier institutions of higher learning. Only Harvard - private, Ivy League, elite - has attracted more National Merit scholars.

National Merit scholars are literally the brightest of the brightest students. And because of their grades, test scores and academic achievements, they can attend virtually any university they choose. That this year 259 scholars are "voting with their feet" and attending UF shows just how far Florida's "flagship" university has evolved.

But we're not worried about UF's ability to attract the best of the best. That will continue to happen. What should be of concern is that as UF's academic standards, and costs, continue to climb, admission will become more and more difficult for the sons and daughters of lower-income and "working-poor" Floridians.

For years, the doors of educational opportunity for lower-income families have been kept open by Federal Pell Grants, a need-based scholarship program that can provide students as much as $4,050 a year in assistance, depending on family income.

This year, an estimated 8,000 students at UF alone receive some level of Pell funding. Nationally, 5.3 million students - about a third of all Americans attending college - receive some Pell dollars. Without that funding, many students might be forced to either go deeply into debt or simply forgo the benefits of a higher-quality education.

But Pell Grants are on Washington's fiscal hit list these days. The Bush administration and Congress recently tightened eligibility criteria to the extent that nearly 90,000 students no longer will qualify for the grants, and another 1.3 million will see reductions in their awards.

This is being done in the name of saving $300 million a year. But

that's a penny-wise, pound-foolish fiscal policy when you consider that one of the benefits of a college education is increased earning potential.

In other words, college graduates tend to pay more taxes and require less government assistance during their lifetimes. From that perspective, Pell Grant dollars are investments that ultimately pay dividends for the taxpayers.

Moreover, it's not only cuts to the Pell Grant program itself that are worrisome. In reporting the eligibility changes, The New York Times recently noted that "the new rules are expected to have a domino effect across almost every type of financial aid, tightening access to billions of dollars in state and institutional grants and, in turn, increasing the reliance on loans to pay for college."

Continued The Times, "Taken together, many education experts say, the consequences for the nation's core financial aid programs are among the most substantial in a decade."

How ironic it will be if UF realizes its ambition to become the

institution of choice for the best and the brightest, only to discover that it no longer can keep its doors open to those who are most in need of a first-class college education - the children of families that are still struggling to escape the bonds of poverty.

The tightening of Pell Grants and the "domino effect" that it will have on other forms of assistance threaten to turn UF and other top American colleges and universities into elite institutions where access is assured only to those who can afford to pay the bill, borrow heavily or qualify for sufficient merit-based assistance.

Deficit reduction is important, but trying to balance Washington's books on the backs of poor college students is simply wrong, and ultimately contrary to the national interest. We urge Congress to reconsider its crackdown on Pell Grants.

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