WASHINGTON – Troy Lambert works hard for his grades, but the University of Maryland senior works just as hard to deal the myriad paperwork that ensures he gets the financial aid he needs.
“I have encountered serious problems in understanding what I needed to do to continue to receive adequate aid,” said the Fort Washington resident, whose paycheck goes to his schooling and helping foot his family’s bills. “I do not think the needs that my family and I had for information and assistance about college are unique.”
Lambert’s testimony about his struggle to piece together earnings, grants and loans for school came during the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions’ kickoff of hearings on the Higher Education Act, which is up for reauthorization.
While officials expect the act to be reauthorized, there are areas where they hope to make improvements.
Despite state and federal efforts to boost access to higher education for students like Lambert, through need-based assistance and loans, it still takes about 62 percent of a low-income family’s annual earnings to send one child to college for one year, according 2001 congressional report.
Usually, these families are also the ones that lack information on how to obtain funding for school, officials say, giving both students and parents the impression that attending college is impossible.
Committee Chairman Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said the obstacles faced by low-income students include the complicated student-aid application and tuition increases that are about 2.5 times the rate of inflation — which could be from declining state support of education or increased spending at some schools.
Government could simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid by eliminating unnecessary questions, “fast-tracking” students who have already qualified for other forms of federal aid and making the forms more user-friendly, officials said.
But access to money only solves part of the problem, said Jamie P. Merisotis, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. College tuition will continue to rise, he said.
Government would need to brandish a big enough “stick” to penalize schools for tuition hikes, Merisotis said. But that effort could well backfire.
“The only stick large enough, in my view, would be (threatening colleges with restrictions on) need-based student-aid programs,” he said. “This means that efforts to penalize institutions would instead likely have a negative effect on the very students . . . the federal aid programs are designed to help.”
Students like Lambert, who starts his day at 6 a.m. as a security officer at the Environmental Protection Agency. The sixth of seven children, and the first in his family to attend college, he works until noon and then takes public transit to the College Park campus, where he said he attends several hours of classes a day.
Lambert said the cost of “one year of my undergraduate education at the University of Maryland is several months of my parents’ total income.”
He suggested that low-income students should be forgiven some of their debt as an incentive to complete their educations despite costs and other factors that may entice them to drop out.
“I’m a low-income student who began college knowing the obstacles to graduating,” he said. “I do not want to be in debt over my head.”