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"More federal grant dollars": Berkeley administrator defends student financial aid before Congressional committee

11 September 2003

- Richard Black, UC Berkeley's Assistant Vice Chancellor for Admissions and Enrollment, testified today (Thursday, Sept. 11) before the Congressional Advisory Committee on Student Financial Aid.

The U.S. Congress is currently in the process of re-authorizing the Higher Education Act, passed in 1965 to strengthen colleges and universities. The Act's programs and activities fall into four main categories: student financial aid, services to help students complete high school and enter and succeed in postsecondary education, aid to institutions, and aid to improve K-12 teacher training at postsecondary institutions.

The Act has been revised and strengthened seven times during the past 38 years. Black is testifying to the continued importance of Pell grants, which are need-based aid for undergraduate students. In 2002, Pell grants assisted 4.4 million students with $11.2 billion in loans; UC Berkeley has more Pell grant recipients than any other campus in the country after UCLA. Congress is considering restricting the provision of Pell grants to the first two years of college, rather than for the full four years. As he told the committee, Black believes that this would be a tremendous hardship for current and prospective Berkeley students.

Black's prepared remarks to the committee follow:

I am Richard Black, the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Admissions and Enrollment at the University of California, Berkeley. I come before you today to urge that Pell Grants NOT be "front loaded." I believe it would be a betrayal of our commitment to support a college education for low-income students if we were to target Pell Grants on freshmen or sophomores and then constrict Pell Grant eligibility for students in their junior or senior years.

I have over 35 years of experience as a student financial aid administrator at Tufts University, the former Washington Technical Institute here in DC, Georgetown University, and Harvard University. From 1983 to 2001 I was Director of Financial Aid at Berkeley. Since 2000 I have been Assistant Vice Chancellor of Admissions and Enrollment. While most of my experience has been at the institutional level, I did serve as an education program specialist at the US Office of Education from 1970 to 1974 during the Nixon Administration. I wrote a handbook on the old Educational Opportunity Grant program and I was assigned to a task force to get the Basic Grant Program off the ground.

So I was there when the Pell Program began as the Basic Educational Opportunity Grants (BEOG), and I well remember its original federal policy purpose: to provide an entitlement grant so that needy students knew they could afford college. To this day that program, renamed the Pell Grant Program, serves that purpose at Berkeley, where almost 30% of the 23,800 undergraduates receive Pell Grants. To be sure, the program has always been inclusive: students at community colleges and vocational programs were also candidates for these federal grants. But the clear policy goal was to ensure that low-income students had the possibility of obtaining enough support to earn a bachelor’s degree. It would be a great disservice to students to have the federal grant program limit its policy goals to cover predominantly shorter-term programs.

I believe that public support for the Pell Grant program will erode if it becomes more closely identified with the first two years of college. Public and congressional support is one of the great assets of the Pell Grant program. I mentioned that I wrote a handbook for the old Educational Opportunity Grant Program. That was a fine grant program for low-income students, but it could never generate strong public support because the public and members of Congress perceived that the colleges and universities were the ones both making the grants and limiting the grants made. The public and the members of Congress now see the Federal Government as responsible for the Pell Grant program, and as a result in good times Federal funding has increased, and in bad times it has at least been sustained. If Pell Grants become a two-year program, a smaller proportion of the public will be involved. Public and congressional support will erode.

I strongly recommend against front-loading Pell Grants because I fear the following five ill effects:

  1. The number of bachelor’s degrees earned by needy students will diminish as their grant support will be reduced or withdrawn at the interval when they would otherwise be moving into their junior year of study.
  2. Students will experience the Pell Grant program as a "bait and switch" on the part of the institutions and the federal government.
  3. Loans and employment will skyrocket since baccalaureate institutions cannot provide enough grant support from non-federal sources to make up for the lost Pell Grant funds to juniors and seniors.
  4. Society will be denied the future leadership from low-income students who will be less likely to complete their baccalaureate degrees.
  5. Students will loose incentive to take advanced placement courses in high school or to otherwise accelerate their academic programs, as doing so will shorten the period of time during which they are recognized as freshmen or sophomores.

What is clearly needed is MORE FEDERAL GRANT DOLLARS. Redistribution is not an answer. This is no time to reduce the target population receiving federal grants, nor to eliminate or freeze the grant dollars going to the most successful among those needy grant recipients. MORE FUNDS ARE NEEDED TO SUPPORT COLLEGE ATTENDANCE AMONG LOW-INCOME STUDENTS, irrespective of academic level. Congress needs to see PELL GRANTS as an investment in national security in the most profound sense.

I would also like to weigh in on the matter of a possible redistribution of the scarce campus-based funds that provide institutions with the flexibility to serve very low-income students on campus. The solution to this problem is not restricting the flow of work study, Perkins and SEOG funds to needy students at institutions which have served them for many years. Rather Congress should provide a significant increase in funds for the campus-based programs to accommodate the legitimate need of students at these institutions.

I thank you for the opportunity to share these views with this committee. I hope that your advice to Congress will reflect these concerns. I welcome your comments and questions and I look forward to participating in the discussion as the day goes on.