Students stung


WASHINGTON -- A couple of days before Christmas, thousands of the nation's college students found that someone left a big lump of coal in their backpacks.

Just call him President Scrooge. Yes, for a man who likes to call himself an education president, it didn't take President Bush long to break one of his proudest education promises.

As recently as his final debate with Sen. John Kerry, the president promised to "continue to expand Pell Grants to make sure that people have an opportunity to start their career with a college diploma."

And the federal scholarships known as Pell Grants have been a spectacular success in encouraging poor and middle-income young people who might otherwise not quite be able to afford to go to college or stay enrolled. Almost all of the 5.3 million Pell recipients come from families earning less than $40,000 a year who, as any parent of a college student can tell you, face a steep climb. College costs have risen 14 percent in the past year alone.

One federal study in the mid-1990s found that a mere $1,000 increase in the average Pell Grant would raise undergraduate retention rates by at least 15 percent.

Considering the overall benefits that an educated population brings to our society, that sounds like a bargain.

But two days before Christmas, the Bush administration gave those struggling students an unwelcome surprise: a new Pell Grant eligibility formula that will knock 80,000 to 90,000 students off the eligibility rolls in 2005 and slash grants to 1.3 million others, according to two studies.

Happy holidays, kids.

Yet the administration, its allies in the Republican-dominated Congress and the predictable cheerleaders on conservative talk radio insist that Pell Grants will, as Mr. Bush said in one of his presidential debates and in his convention acceptance speech, "continue to expand."

How? Well, to paraphrase an earlier president, it all depends on what your definition of "expand" is.

Total Pell Grant recipients are expected to grow because the number of qualified applicants is growing. But grants have not kept up with rising college costs, and some students will find their grants reduced or eliminated because the Bush administration and Congress chose this time to update, for the first time since 1988, the figures for state taxes on which eligibility is based.

That means the more your state cut its taxes during the 1990s economic boom, the more likely your household will be viewed as too wealthy -- on paper, anyway -- to receive federal college aid, even though the taxes in most states have been rising in recent years.

The Education Department first proposed the formula change in 2003 for the 2004 fiscal year, but legislation pushed by Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine of New Jersey blocked its implementation. This year, the Bush administration pushed the Republican-led Congress to allow the changes. GOP Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, succeeded in getting the Corzine amendment dropped when Congress passed its $388 billion omnibus spending bill in mid-November -- after the presidential election.

The formula change will cost some families but save the government $300 million in the 2005-2006 academic year, the administration estimates. That sounds like a lot of money standing by itself, but it sounds pretty puny next to the government's more than $400 billion deficit, the mounting billions of dollars spent on the Iraq war or the $1.9 trillion that the Bush tax cuts are expected to cost in revenue reductions over the next 10 years.

With that in mind, the president's Pell Grant trims would not sound so cynical had he not promised so often to "expand" the grants. As far back as his 2000 presidential campaign, he proposed raising the maximum award to $5,100. Instead, the maximum grant will remain at $4,050 a year in 2005, unchanged for the third consecutive year.

Yet Mr. Bush gets away with this wordplay as smoothly as Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

But all is not lost for young folks seeking federal help with their college costs. After all, they can enlist. There's a lot of spending going on these days at the Defense Department.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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