How Will Obama Help College Costs?

Corey Briscoe, a sophomore at Howard University in Washington, D.C. i i

Corey Briscoe, a sophomore at Howard University in Washington, D.C., hopes that President-elect Obama makes affordable education a top priority. Larry Abramson/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Larry Abramson/NPR
Corey Briscoe, a sophomore at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Corey Briscoe, a sophomore at Howard University in Washington, D.C., hopes that President-elect Obama makes affordable education a top priority.

Larry Abramson/NPR

Memo To The President

In this occasional series, NPR will follow the transition from one administration to another through a series of stories, conversations, commentaries and essays that will outline the many issues and challenges facing the new occupant of the White House. From a broken military to a troubled economy to a National Park Service in need of a major overhaul — we'll provide the briefing paper, the options and the obstacles.

President-elect Obama will take office at a time when a college education is both more valuable and more expensive than ever. While the U.S. continues to enjoy international admiration for the quality of its higher education system, the cost of that education still disadvantages the poor.

Recent data show that tuition continues to rise at schools across the country. Tuition for private four-year schools exceeds $25,000; for public schools the total cost, with room and board, is more than $14,000. Economic troubles facing the country guarantee that public institutions will have to at least consider price increases in order to cope with declining state contributions.

While there is agreement that more aid is needed for low-income students, finding that money is a major challenge the next administration will have to address. And figuring out how to simplify the aid process, so first-time college students can access the money, may be even more complicated.

Pell Grant Policy

College sophomore Corey Briscoe has everything it takes to be successful in politics, the field he is pursuing at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He's personable, outgoing and he's up on the issues — especially on what Obama needs to do for would-be college students.

"Mr. President, you must make your top priority that any student who wants to go to college should be able to go to college. And we have to make that funding available," Briscoe says.

His parents are middle class, Briscoe says, but they are struggling to pay for his education. When his sister arrives at college next year, the Briscoes will have three children at Howard.

And as his father's tuition bill grows, his savings are going up in smoke.

"My father has different stocks and bonds," Briscoe says. "And he lost, I believe, in a matter of weeks, $15,000 in one stock. If we knew we were going to lose that $15,000, we would have put that to our college education and different things."

No matter how much his parents struggle, Briscoe knows they will pay for his education.

But low-income families are often totally dependent on federal aid, in particular, the Pell Grant. After years of stagnation, the Pell Grant — awarded to low-income Americans based on financial need — has been increasing. The top award has increased by $700 in the last couple of years. The maximum for the 2008-2009 school year is about $4,700.

Tally Hart, financial aid director at Ohio State University, says the Pell Grant falls way short of the need.

"While I'd love to say 'double it,' I think that's probably unrealistic. I think more realistic would be increases in the $2,000 to $3,000 range for the largest Pell Grant recipients," Hart says.

What About A Tax Credit?

Obama says he supports increases to the Pell Grant program. But he will have to take a mighty leap to get the four-figure increase that Hart believes is necessary.

The president-elect campaigned heavily on the promise of a $4,000 education tax credit that would benefit even taxpayers who don't file a tax return. While that idea might help middle-class families, Hart says, the tax credit won't do the trick for poor students.

"They simply won't get that tax credit until after they've had to put that upfront money into college education. And if they don't know that financial aid is available, they won't even get that far in the process," Hart says.

In other words, low-income families won't sign up for big tuition bills, based on the promise of a rebate months later. In fact, some higher-education folks fear that the idea of a new tax break will just complicate the byzantine dance that is the financial aid process.

Lauren Asher with the California-based Institute for College Access and Success says clarity in the system is just as important as money.

"If you know you are eligible for aid and about how much, it can help you make decisions that can really make a difference for your future. It can help you think, 'Well, maybe I can at least try to get into a four-year college and see what it would cost me, instead of being sure I couldn't possibly afford it,' " Asher says.

'Fix The Economy'

The complex brew of aid, loans and tuition leads many low-income families to greatly overestimate the cost of college. Many just give up.

While campaigning, Obama promised to get rid of the complicated form students must use to apply for aid, but educators have been hearing similar promises for a long time.

Some higher education experts believe there's a more immediate problem the new president needs to deal with.

David Hodge, president of Miami University in economically struggling Ohio, says the answer is simple: "Fix the economy."

His school recently announced a hiring freeze. And other schools have put all capital projects on hold to conserve resources.

From a decline in investment income to a decline in state revenues, Hodge says the economy threatens his institution and his students from every quarter.

Hodge says more federal money is needed. But in the end, he says, families need a dependable income before they even think about applying to college.

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