College Aid for Babies?

March 11, 2006

Now that I am in college for the second time, working on a Bachelor’s degree in Mandarin Chinese — si, I am a loca! — I am so grateful I am not poor. When I earned my first degree at Boston University seven years ago, I was broke and thank goodness, Bill Clinton was president. Through hard work and a generous amount of government aid and the AmeriCorps national service program created by Clinton, I was able to finish college and even pay off one of my student loans upon graduating.

But that was then. Today’s broke college student — I should say poor parents — face steeper costs and creeping interest rates for loans, according to Jane Bryant Quinn of Newsweek. Pell Grants — the government’s basic aid program, which saved me in the 1990s — has not risen since 2003. Our current president wants to all but dismantle AmeriCorps, even though he touted it as part of his “compassionate conservative” agenda in 2001.

The result of this bind are not surprising: Private universities are “trolling” for students whose parents can pay full tuition, while squeezed middle-class families are switching to public universities, Bryant Quinn said. What is today’s cash-strapped college student to do?

Among several measures, Bryant Quinn suggested consolidating student loans at a fixed interest rate and saving money in a “529” account. But the last suggestion by James Heckman, a Nobel-Prize-winning economics professor at the University of Chicago, will no doubt excite already competitive parents:

For those who can’t raise enough for tuition, targeted grants would be ideal. But to prepare and motivate larger numbers of poor kids, the most effective “college prep” may be enrichment courses for infants and toddlers. The research is proving it, Heckman says. Schools (and testing) play only a minor role in raising test scores. Stimulating tots produces more successful and smart adults.

Where did that come from?? I love Bryant Quinn’s response: “Student aid for babies? Why not?”