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Financial Aid?

04/02/08 5:55PM By Philip Baruth
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(HOST) Commentator Philip Baruth is a novelist who teaches at the University of Vermont. When his older brother died, he offered to help his nephew with applications for college and financial aid - and he was appalled by what he learned. But there’s a hint of a silver lining: Vermont’s Freshman Congressman has been very much on the case.

(BARUTH) Five years ago, my older brother died very suddenly at age 42. His fourteen-year-old son, my nephew Craig, was devastated. But his bond with his mother was exceptionally strong, and, with a lot of love from the extended family, Craig made it through the crisis.

Financially things were very tight, though: Craig’s mother was disabled by an extreme form of Lupus. So their entire family income came from Social Security of one form or another. Still, Craig managed good grades in high school, and, when it was time to look at colleges, I helped him navigate the admissions system. I don’t know a lot about a lot of things, I figured, but I do know something about going to college. I teach at UVM, and I advise students every day.

But it turned out that I knew nothing, really, about the part of college that matters most: the financial aid system. On the drive to Craig’s new campus in New York, I told him I was sure he’d be offered complete funding for his four-year education. No one could demonstrate greater need, I thought, and surely need would be the imperative.

And when we’d finished our session with the financial aid counselor, she smiled and told us the good news: Craig would receive the maximum the University offered in terms of financial aid. Then came the bad news: the maximum aid package each year would leave Craig a gap of some $30,000 at the end of four years. This gap would take the form of mandatory loans that even the most impoverished kids must sign.

That one thirty-minute meeting opened my eyes forever.

The costs of a four-year education are vastly too high, and getting higher; the credit burden we’re currently placing on the children of low- and middle-income families borders on the criminal. And it was right around the time of that meeting that I began to pay a little more attention to some of the initiatives coming out of the office of our freshman Congressman, Peter Welch.

It turns out Welch has been far from idle on this front. Along with the rest of the Democratic caucus, he pushed for what is now known as the College Cost Reduction Act of 2007, which at once raised the amount needy students can get in the form of grants and cut the interest rate on the amount they must take in loans in half.

But increasing scholarships and reducing interest means nothing if colleges and universities consume the savings with tuition increases. So Congressman Welch has gone at the problem the other way as well: he managed to pass an amendment mandating that colleges and universities report to the Deptment of Education exactly how much of their endowment is reserved each year for containing costs to students, including tuition. With greater transparency, Welch argues, will come increasing public pressure for all institutions to aggressively lower tuition rates.

Both of these moves struck me as common-sensical and long overdue. And, as is so rarely the case with legislation out of Washington, both spoke to me in clear terms about things that I now worry about every day.

Especially these days, because two months ago Craig’s situation got worse in the only way possible: his mother died of inoperable cancer, and a quick call to his financial aid counselor confirmed that it wouldn’t affect his financial aid status in the slightest.
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