S.M.A.R.T. Grant Restrictions May Affect Attainability

Following criticism by college financial aid officers that
it is unwieldy and partially ineffective, the National Science and Mathematics
Access to Retain Talent Grant has introduced new eligibility restrictions that
could make the already exclusive grant even more difficult for students to
obtain.

While the grant supports low-income students enrolled in
certain math, science or foreign language majors, those same students will now
lose this aid if they are not consistently enrolled in at least one class
specific to that major this year.

A letter written by Assistant Secretary to the Office of
Postsecondary Education Diane Jones earlier this month detailed ways in which students can lose their funding
if they fail to carefully regulate the classes they enroll in each term. Though
the document states it is simply “additional guidance” in response to repeated
administrative queries, the letter was met with concern by many students and
financial aid experts.

“If the student were enrolled only in courses that satisfy
the general education requirements of the National S.M.A.R.T. Grant-eligible
program, but not in any courses that are specific to the major, he or she would
not be eligible for a National S.M.A.R.T. Grant payment for the semester,”
Jones said in the letter.

Previously, institutions were not required to ensure that
students were taking one class per grading period in their approved major. The
new restrictions define the way students must take classes each grading period,
or risk losing their funding if they take even one term of all general
education requirements. This could present difficulties for students who finish
all their major classes before the end of their senior year, or those who are
unable to enter into heavily impacted major classes.

In February 2006, President George W. Bush allotted $1.64
billion to the S.M.A.R.T Grant and the Academic Competitiveness Grant for the
following two years. Half of this aid package — available only to third and
fourth-year students — aims to provide incentives for eligible low-income
students to enroll in college with specific majors in math, science or
“critical languages” such as Arabic.

Those looking to utilize S.M.A.R.T. Grant aid must meet very
specific criteria: Students must be U.S. citizens attending a baccalaureate
degree program full-time, be enrolled as a third or fourth-year student and
maintain a 3.0 GPA.

Another restriction involves their previous placement: If a
student did not attend an academically “rigorous” institution during high
school, they are automatically ineligible.

Though permanent legal residents are eligible for many other
financial aid programs, they are excluded from S.M.A.R.T. Grant eligibility.

Since the grant is aimed at low-income students who may
choose to attend school part-time while working, the grant’s restrictions
effectively disqualify many of those who must support themselves or their
families by working full-time, or forces them to both work and attend school
full-time.

Bill Frist, former Republican Senator from Tennessee and
initiator of the S.M.A.R.T. Grant, said that new support for math and science
education would increase America’s ability to compete in the global economy.

“China and India are generating scientists and engineers at
a furious pace while America lags dangerously behind,” Frist told the New York
Times in December 2005.

The S.M.A.R.T. and AC grants are available only to students
already eligible for the Pell Grant, which Bush boosted funds to last month
when he increased the grant’s maximum allotment to $4,800 for the 2008-09
academic year. Specific benefits include up to $4,000 per eligible S.M.A.R.T.
Grant student for each year, in addition to the Pell Grant funds students
receive. This represents a significant increase from the AC Grant, intended for
first- and second-year students, where $750 and $1,300 are available,
respectively.

Mark Kantrowitz, founder of financial aid Web site
FinAid.org, has lobbied for an increase of the Pell Grant to $7,500. He said he
believes that this program effectively achieves the goal of an increased Pell
Grant for the low-income students who are looking to enter the eligible majors.

“Increasing the Pell Grant to roughly $8,000 [through the
addition of S.M.A.R.T. Grant funds] will eliminate loans from the financial aid
packages of many low income students, removing one of the major impediments to
their enrollment in higher education,” Kantrowitz said in an e-mail.

He also said he sees the S.M.A.R.T. Grant as filling a
specific niche in student aid.

“To the extent that the S.M.A.R.T. Grant is a hybrid between
need-based aid and merit aid, it is filling the gap for some needy students,”
he said. “That will serve as an incentive for students to enter those fields.”

Major questions posed by critics of the S.M.A.R.T. Grant
include how lost aid can be recovered if students no longer qualify for the
grant as they move into another year of college, as well as how the low
percentage of Pell Grant students that also qualify for the National S.M.A.R.T.
Grant can be explained. A mere 4 percent of Pell Grant students qualified for
this year’s S.M.A.R.T. Grant.

The U.S. Department of Education looks to double the number
of AC and National S.M.A.R.T. Grant recipients nationwide by 2011.

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