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Financial Aid for College: Several Promising Signs

Aug 18, 2007
Benjamin Franklin once quipped that there are two certainties in life - death and taxes. But as every college student knows, life also has a third certainty - rising tuition. At most schools, tuition increases at a rate of about 3-5% per year. On average, the cost of one-year's worth of school, including tuition, housing, transportation, and other fees, amounts to about $12,000 per year at a public school and $32,000 per year at a private school. That means that the cost of a bachelor's degree is anywhere from $50,000 to a staggering $125,000. Still, even with the rising cost of education, there are several promising signs for college students (and their parents).

Perhaps the most widely televised indicator is the bill recently passed in Congress that will allocate more money for Pell grants. Currently, recipients of federally-funded Pell grants get $4,310 each year. The bill, which passed 78-18, would raise that amount to $5,400. The bill would also provide loan forgiveness to students who take jobs in public service following graduation and make payments for ten years.

What this means is that more Pell grant recipients - typically, the poorest college students - will get a significant boost from the federal government in the form of financial aid that does not have to be repaid. As such, these students can reduce their need for financial aid that does need to repaid - namely loans. For more information about this bill as well a subsequent bill that targets the financial aid application process and the problem of conflicted interests between banks and colleges, see "Senate Votes to Increase Grants, Loans."

A second promising sign is the recent move by Amherst College to eliminate student loans entirely and replace them with scholarships. This move provides greater flexibility for both the school and prospective students. On the one hand, it allows Amherst to draw on a broader pool of applicants - not just the ones who can pay for school outright or who can be reasonably expected to repay loans. On the other hand, it grants students greater flexibility after graduation.

"Too often, students who graduate from college with debt feel compelled to make career choices based in part on their need to pay off their student loans," said Tom Parker, dean of admission and financial aid. "Graduates from low- and middle-income families should have the same array of career options as graduates from upper-income families."

In doing away with student loans, Amherst joins other notables like Princeton and Davidson, who have likewise replaced student loans with scholarships. Hopefully, the move by Amherst and others will open up a dialogue at other institutions and herald similar moves in the near future. To read more about how Amherst intends to implement (and pay for) its new program, see "Amherst Cuts Loans in College Aid."

The third and final indicator is perhaps the most anecdotal but also the most promising of the three, at least potentially. It deals with the long-standing gripe of both students and faculty at colleges and universities around the country - namely, the price of textbooks. Well, it seems one professor has finally had enough. Ron Hammond, a sociology professor at Utah Valley State College in Orem, Utah, announced recently that he will no longer use textbooks in his courses. In "Textbook Prices Too Much, So UVSC Professor Eliminates Their Use," Hammond said, "I think it's immoral because of the cost of it." Instead, he's tailoring his classes to cover similar material by drawing on other sources, such as those available for free online, and by opting for his own tests and questions rather than those provided by the textbook.

While Hammond is only an isolated case - at least for now - he does represent a growing number of disaffected teachers who are looking for alternatives to the overpriced textbooks provided by a handful of well-established publishers. If other professors follow suit - and it is almost certain they will - publishers will need to respond or risk losing a lucrative but increasingly hostile market. If they don't, they could see migration en masse to textbook-less courses such as those offered by Professor Hammond, leaving behind a stack of high-priced but now worthless textbooks, which would give disgruntled college students something they've clamored for for years - a good old-fashioned book burning.
About the Author
Benjamin Welch has been a college instructor for nearly six years. When he's not teaching or playing golf, he offers advice about financial aid and financial federal aid.
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