Jan 192006
 
Authors: Vimal Patel

Low-income students are suffering because of the state's "broken" financial aid system, leaving nearly 25,000 of Colorado's neediest higher-education seekers with zero state aid dollars, according to a recent report by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education (CCHE).

And although lack of funding is a dilemma, structural problems in the way Colorado colleges and universities dole out financial aid are also a major factor, wrote Rick O'Donnell , the commission's executive director.

This belief led the commission to recommend an overhaul of the state's financial aid system and to even consider centralizing it.

Sandy Calhoun, director of financial aid at CSU, said she's open to constructive criticism and is willing to talk about improving the system's structure.

"I don't think the system is as broken as the CCHE is suggesting it is, but it's always a good idea to review the program for ways it could be improved," she said.

O'Donnell lambasted flaws in the current administration of financial aid, including "bait and switch" tactics by colleges and universities – luring incoming freshman with hefty aid packages and reducing them in subsequent years – and lack of equal treatment in determining the amount of aid a student receives.

Under the current system, O'Donnell said, two students with identical financial need could receive radically different amounts of aid.

"It is troubling to me that in a country where equality before the law is one of our most cherished Constitutional principles, there could be such an unequal access to state financial aid," O'Donnell said.

Calhoun said the CCHE might not always be privy to the information that individual schools have and that statistics don't tell the whole story.

For instance, the commission can't analyze information on additional sources of student funding like separate scholarships or grants the way schools can.

Individual universities and colleges can look at the complete picture of a student's need, Calhoun said, and make decisions based on that additional knowledge.

About the "bait-and-switch tactics," students are given aid from the state on a year-by-year basis, so aid amount could fluctuate based on a variety of factors, including a change in the student's financial situation, Calhoun said.

The commission's report, billed as the first comprehensive study of the state's financial aid system in the last ten years, cited several other concerns, including aid being non-transferable and a lower amount available for late applicants, who disproportionately are low-income.

Diane Lindner, CCHE financial aid director, said the option of centralizing the state's financial aid system is up for discussion, and this is making some financial aid administrators leery.

"They feel anger because they feel they're doing a good job with what they've been provided, and they are doing a good job," she said.

Of the nearly 48,000 Colorado residents, Pell Grant-eligible students – defined as having an annual income of less than $40,000 for a family of four – less than 23,000 received state aid in the 2004-05 school year.

"I think the funds are going to needy students," Calhoun said. "That's more a function of limited funding."

The passage of Referendum C in November boosted the chances of increased financial aid funding.

The measure increased the state's coffers by an estimated $3.7 billion over the next five years. O'Donnell wrote he would like to see $55 million of that diverted to the state's financial aid system, including $8.2 million this year.

"I'm willing to discuss anything that the commission thinks will be a viable option for students," Calhoun said. "The state has an obligation to make higher education accessible to all students."

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