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Help (Un)Wanted

Evaluating ACG/SMART grant programs one year later.
University Business, Nov 2007

AFTER MORE THAN A YEAR of implementing the Academic Competitiveness Grant (ACG) and the National Science and Math Access to Retain Talent (SMART) Grant programs, financial aid professionals have mixed feelings about program results. A panel speaking at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators' 2007 annual conference in Washington, D.C., captured these feelings. Aid directors expressed frustration, hope, and determination as they described their experiences.

Financial aid professionals feel frustrated by the administrative burden associated with properly administrating the programs. They're also frustrated that many students either weren't aware of the programs, or eligibility requirements kept them from participating.

They expressed hope that the administrative burden would ease and that more students would take advantage of the programs. They were also hopeful that Congress would amend the ACG/SMART laws to eliminate certain eligibility requirements that keep some needy students from participating. Despite the challenges, aid administrators remain determined to make the most of the programs to ensure that their students receive as much aid as possible.

Student participation in the grant programs seemed to vary by institution type. Carol Mowbray, director of student financial aid and support services at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC), said she was surprised by the lack of interest in the ACG program. "We are low-cost, so these small awards should make a pretty good difference," she said. "But that has not been a factor in student enrollment, retention, or students choosing certificate programs instead of associate programs in order to be eligible for ACG awards."

'This is not a community college-friendly system.' -Carol Mowbray, Northern Virginia Community College

Only 75 students received an ACG award in 2006-2007, and only nine progressed from year one to year two in 2007-2008, Mowbray said. Most students became ineligible because their grade point average was not high enough or because they had to take developmental credits that stalled their academic year progression.

Despite those challenges, Mowbray said NVCC had relatively good participation compared to other community colleges. "This is not a community college-friendly system, and as a result the numbers are pretty small," she said.

ACG participation at Doane College (Neb.), a private institution, was much different. "We actually had more ACG folks than we initially expected, so I had to call the department for more money," said Janet Dodson, director of financial aid at the school and the 2006-2007 NASFAA national chair. Doane had 101 ACG recipients and nine SMART Grant recipients in 2006-2007. Yet only 23 first-year ACG recipients received a second-year award.

Marie Mons, director of student financial planning and services at Georgia Institute of Technology, said she was excited about the programs last year because she thought they targeted the needs of GIT students. She was disappointed, however, in their lack of participation, and she suspects that this is the national trend.

"The registrar office was excited early on because they thought we were going to receive millions and millions of dollars," Mons said. "When they realized this was only a small subset of Pell recipients, their enthusiasm waned." More than 270 GIT students received ACG awards, and 190 received SMART Grants in 2006-2007.

Still, Mons said the number of GIT students not eligible for the programs disappointed her. Less than 25 percent of GIT's 2006-2007 Pell recipients qualified for the program, and less than 75 percent of 2006-2007 ACG/SMART recipients remained eligible for the aid in 2007-2008.

The poor program retention rate raises a new problem for institutions. Because ACG/SMART recipients are among the neediest students, it is difficult for schools to give them the aid one year and then take it away the next. Instead, many IHEs are looking for ways to maintain the amount of aid for students who lost eligibility.

"It seemed like a bait and switch for our neediest students, and we couldn't take away funds that they were awarded in earlier years," said Mons. "It may cost the institution more to ensure that needy students can count on receiving these funds. When I brought this issue to the college's leaders their response was, 'Thank God we don't have more of these."

The panel agreed that some eligibility requirements kept deserving students from receiving ACG/SMART Grant awards and kept participation in the programs low. Mons noted that if part-time students and non-U.S. citizens were eligible, it would likely increase participation. Congress is currently considering bills that would open eligibility to these students and to students in certificate programs.

Mowbray said the main reason NVCC students were ineligible was that they failed to submit a high school transcript-but the college does not require a transcript for enrollment. Other students submitted incomplete or draft transcripts. "High schools are closed in August, so it can be hard for students to get a transcript," she said.

NVCC also had students who failed to qualify because they had enrolled in certificate programs.

Panel members voiced frustration with the heavy administrative burden required by programs that have such low participation rates. Administering the program was labor intensive and represented a step backwards in a profession that has seen so many technological advancements in recent years. Most aid professionals had to manually review and process documents to maximize the number of students who received the awards and to remain in compliance with ACG/SMART regulations.

At Doane, Dodson and the financial aid office had to review many transcripts because high schools did not have sufficient quality control to ensure that the students' courses met the eligibility requirements in the law. It was also a challenge to decipher transcripts, because some high schools were often "creative" with class titles.

"We had to call high schools to determine what many of the titles meant," Dodson said. "It took lots of manual review and was very labor intensive." She advises, "Make friends with admissions officers and registrars, because you'll need their help to get it all done."

But even without the frustration of administrating the programs, NASFAA panelists were disappointed with the impact of ACG/SMART programs.

"I haven't seen any evidence that SMART has influenced students' majors," Mons said. "Those who dropped out of majors and lost the money were not going to change their mind because of a few thousand dollars."

Mowbray had a similar assessment of the ACG program. "If Congress' intent was to get students to take rigorous courses, then they have to back this up and have earlier intervention. In addition, the dollars have to be significant enough to make a difference and I don't see that," she said. "I don't think these programs have impacted students' behavior. I think some students are more aware, but these students were going to do what they were going to do anyway."

Dodson said she was disappointed that Doane's science department has not used the SMART Grant program as a tool to develop the science program as much as she expected. As a private college, Doane has as one of its goals the development of various departments, but the additional money available to science majors has done little to boost the program.

"While we have seen some benefits, we have not seen the long-term benefits that we had hoped for," Dodson said.

Financial aid officers are conflicted about the future of ACG/SMART because Congress has only funded the programs for five years. However, Congress and the Bush administration have indicated they like the programs and want to provide more funding for them.

"We have to be cautious that we don't get too excited, because the money may not be there," Dodson said. "But if this motivates us to motivate others, including students, to take rigorous classes, be ready for higher education, and get good grades, that is positive."

Panelists were also concerned that Congress is considering modifying the programs, including easing eligibility requirements.

"This program is evolving. Changes are being considered that could change the nature of the program," Mowbray said. "This makes it tricky to market the program with a clear message."

Despite these uncertainties, financial aid professionals are doing their best to market these programs so more students can benefit from the funding. But panelists said the complexity of ACG/SMART made this task even more difficult. The myriad eligibility requirements and different award amounts made it difficult to get people excited about the programs or to get them to change their behavior to become eligible for the aid, the panelists said.

Panel members also said they would like some assessment to determine whether the programs actually encourage high school students to take a rigorous curriculum, or more college students to pursue a major in a field that is considered a national need. Ultimately panelists were frustrated because they wanted to do more with the programs but were held back by the many regulations and eligibility requirements.

"I have many students asking for the grants, but they are not Pell eligible. That is maybe the saddest outcome of this program," Dodson said. "I wish this program would help all students, but it only helps a small subset."

Haley Chitty is assistant director of communications at NASFAA,

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