• by Felix Montes, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • August 1998 • Dr. Felix Montes

Education has been heralded as the most effective means of social advancement in this country. Many analysts consider the GI Bill that provided financial aid to the returning, victorious soldiers of World War II one of the best decisions ever made by the U.S. Congress, even though opposition was strong at the time.

Today, there is abundant evidence that the GI Bill changed the lives of thousands of people. Today, it is still important to provide students with the financial resources they need to complete their education and obtain a college degree. IDRA has been involved in efforts to provide schools, families and community organizations with the means to inform students of available sources of funds. This article highlights those efforts, outlines challenges minority students face in obtaining financial aid and describes four useful sources of information.

Southwestern Bell Helps Students Go to College

In the early 1990s, some financial assistance was available from state and federal governments, civic groups, universities, and colleges. But specific and centralized information about these sources of funds was not available. Furthermore, school personnel were not trained to help students retrieve the information through the then emerging electronic means. If such information had been readily available to parents and counselors, many students would have found that they could afford to go to college.

IDRA sought and received a grant from Southwestern Bell in 1993 to assist students. With this grant, IDRA launched the Southwestern Bell Student Financial Assistance Project to facilitate students’ access to such information. The project became a resource to students, parents and schools in satisfying this long-standing need.

Through the project, IDRA collected information about local sources of funding in the Rio Grande Valley area where the project was designed to operate. With this information, IDRA developed a data base of regional funding sources. National information was obtained through the software program, FundFinder. Additional software was developed by IDRA to organize the information.

The project was implemented in five schools with a total enrollment of 11,871 students. These schools were selected based on their varying characteristics. Some were large schools while others were small; some schools were rural while others were urban.

IDRA installed the required software in all participating campuses, updated the data bases periodically and trained school counselors, library aides and other student services personnel, and parents to use the technology. IDRA also helped the schools design procedures that maximized students’ access to the system. In some cases, this involved including students as part of the project team, relocating computers to more accessible places and involving members of the community. IDRA provided technical assistance as needed for the duration of the project.

One of the most important conclusions derived from the project was the need for professional development and technical assistance in using technology to help students obtain financial aid information. For example, although participants felt that all activities of the project were productive, the hands-on training experience obtained the highest mark in the project evaluation because, as one participant said, “When you do the actual work, you learn and understand more.” Another participant added: “Questions that arose were answered promptly. It’s actually easier than I anticipated.” Having experts in both financial aid issues and in technology was a major positive element in implementing this project.

The project concluded in June 1995 with the end of the grant. Most of the schools continued to use the system.

In 1996, IDRA collaborated with the Council for South Texas Economic Progress (CoStep) to continue some aspects of the student financial aid support that IDRA had developed. Under this agreement, IDRA trained CoStep personnel and provided some of the software tools used in the original project. CoStep visited 13 campuses and directly helped 1,956 students find financial aid information. This effort is continuing today.

CoStep now uses a “NetMobile” to help students get access to scholarship information through the Internet. The NetMobile was developed by the Center for Entrepreneurship and Economic Development (CEED) at the University of Texas, Pan American. The NetMobile is a self-contained satellite-linked Internet mobile unit that CoStep uses to provide access to the Internet for students who may lack the basic infrastructure at their schools or who may not have computers. In the first three months of 1998, CoStep had already visited 26 schools and assisted more than 1,300 students.

New Rulings Bring Back the Old Ways

Several factors make it increasingly difficult for minority students to get financial aid. For the past 20 years, the balance between the different components of financial aid – grants, loans and work-study programs – has changed significantly (HACU, 1994). In 1975, more than 80 percent of all financial aid came from grants. In 1993, that percentage dropped to 51 percent. Student loans increased from 16.9 percent to 47 percent in the same period, making up the difference, according to the College Entrance Examination Board (HACU, 1994). The work-study program also dropped from 2.8 percent to 2 percent. Since a much larger proportion of minority students, especially Hispanic and African American students, come from low-income families, this larger reliance on loans hits them particularly hard as their families are less likely to qualify for them.

To make matters worse, affirmative action in higher education admissions, financial aid and recruitment has come under severe attack in recent years.

In 1978, Allan Bakke sued the University of California Medical School at Davis claiming that his rights were violated on the grounds that the admissions program had a set aside for African American students (US Supreme Court, 1978). The US Supreme Court ruled against the admissions program. However, Justice Lewis F. Powell wrote in his concurrence that, while the court was striking down the program, it is permissible to take race into account as one factor among many in making admissions in order to achieve a diverse student body.

This case was concerned specially with admissions. But it opened the door for similar challenges related to financial aid. For example, Daniel Podberesky sued the University of Maryland at College Park on the grounds that its Benjamin Banneker scholarship, which gave preference to African American students, discriminated against non-African American students (US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, 1994). The university won the case at the district court level, but Podberesky appealed, and the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck down the program. The university appealed to the Supreme Court, which refused to review the case, saying that it would not establish a clear precedent for future cases.

Perhaps the most venomous case occurred in Texas in 1994. Cheryl Hopwood and a handful of other students charged the University of Texas Law School with “reverse discrimination” in its admissions policies (US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, 1994). The district court ruled the admissions program was unconstitutional, and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the district court’s decision. The US Supreme Court chose not to hear the case since the specific program was no longer in use at the school (Cortez and Romero, 1997).

Two of the Fifth Circuit judges stressed their view that, based on recent Supreme Court decisions on other areas of affirmative action (such as redistricting and contracting), Justice Powell’s Bakke opinion was no longer valid.

Such overtures did not go unnoticed. Public officials and enemies of affirmative action used the Hopwood ruling as an excuse to weaken affirmative action in all areas of education. Thus, the attorney general of Texas rushed to interpret the scope of the ruling. As a result, in Texas, the ruling now extends not only to admissions but also to scholarships, fellowships and other financial aid programs and to any race-conscious recruiting. In Mississippi and Louisiana, the other two states in the Fifth Circuit, the broad interpretation was less effective because these states are under federal desegregation orders and therefore are still permitted to use race-based affirmative action.

Inferring a changing public mood regarding affirmative action, politicians in California developed Proposition 209, an amendment to the California constitution that effectively mandates the end of affirmative action in the state of California. Shortly after the proposition was passed, the general counsel of the University of California issued an opinion saying that Proposition 209 could require eliminating any race-based scholarships in the state.

These attacks on affirmative action in education and other areas have produced negative results for minorities. Intangible results include a climate of intolerance toward minorities exemplified by professors who openly voice racist remarks against minority groups. For example, University of Texas Law School Professor Lino Graglia, in a September 10, 1997, news conference said that African American students and Mexican American students are not academically competitive with White students and seem to come from cultures that do not look on failure with disgrace. The next day, in an interview with the Austin American-Statesman, Graglia said he opposed school desegregation because:

I don’t know that it’s good for Whites to be with the lower classes [because] they perform less well in school. They tend towards greater violent behavior (Roser, 1997).

Tangible results of this undermining of affirmative action include an 80 percent drop in the number of African American applicants to the law schools at UCLA and Berkeley. Similarly, applications from African American students to the University of Texas Law School dropped from 65 in 1996 to 10 in 1997, after the Hopwood decision (Peckham, 1997). The damage is not limited to these specific colleges. There were 867 fewer applications to all Texas universities from African American students, representing a 21.6 percent decline in a one-year period. There were 1,608 fewer applications to those same schools from Hispanic students, a 22 percent drop for the group that represents the fastest growing segment of the Texas student population (IDRA, 1997).

The future of higher education for all minorities, and especially for underprivileged minorities, is less certain today. On the one hand, the increasing reliance on loans excludes a substantial number of minority families due to their low socio-economic status. On the other hand, the successful attacks on affirmative action in education and its natural aftermath of racism and intolerance makes it difficult for minority students to get grants or scholarships. But technology might offer one of the glimmers of hope in this otherwise bleak picture.

New Technology Presents New Possibilities

Just a few years ago, when IDRA implemented the student financial assistance project, the most common way of getting information about financial aid was through the financial aid books that counselors would use to help students who indicated an interest in pursuing college education. This is still the case in many schools. But, today there are better options.

In 1993, the College Board introduced FundFinder, a DOS-based (IBM PC textual operating system) software program that provided information about national sources of funds from private and public institutions. FundFinder represented an important departure from the book approach used in the schools. It was much faster, more accurate and could be used by more people. It also provided information about expected expenditures and financial possibilities for most colleges and universities in the country.

However, it also introduced the need for more training and technical assistance for school personnel in using computers and technology in general. As has been the case with other technological advances, some schools hastened to acquire the software but barely used it due to lack of training and technical assistance.

In 1994, the College Board introduced ExPan, the successor to FundFinder. ExPan was a more sophisticated, Windows-based software program that provided information about financial aid and universities as well as offering a mechanism for automatic, electronic application to colleges and universities that belonged to the ExPan network. The ExPan network was a custom designed telecommunication hub that facilitated the electronic transfer of information between sending schools and prospective colleges.

With the advent of the Internet, student financial assistance today presents new possibilities. There is no longer the need to actually acquire a software package such as FundFinder or its successor ExPan. Schools only need access to the Internet.

One of the goals of the current US administration is to have all schools connected to the Internet by the year 2000. As this happens, students will be able to access not just one, but a variety of on-line data bases with updated information about sources of funds for college and other important information to help them plan their college education.

I have selected four Internet sites that represent some of these possibilities to describe here. All of them can be accessed directly or through the IDRA web site (www.idra.org). Once at the IDRA web site, click the bar Resource Links

Felix Montes, Ph.D., is a research associate in the IDRA Division of Research and Evaluation. Comments and questions may be sent to him via e-mail at feeback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]