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Brookings Panel Suggests Reforms to State Aid for College Students

States should rethink the way that financial aid is given to college students so it is simpler to access and used more effectively, according to a report released yesterday by a panel from the Brookings Institution.

Beyond Need and Merit: Strengthening State Grant Programs suggests that states move beyond strict categories of "merit aid" and "need-based aid" and come up with innovative ways of encouraging students with financial need to enroll and complete college. In the current tight economic climate, the panel recommends that states be more intentional with their aid, including appropriate expectations and support for college success, to make the most of the taxpayer investment.

To improve grant programs, the report suggests states should:

•Do a better job of targeting aid dollars to students with the most financial need.

•Consolidate programs to make the system easier for families to navigate, adding, for instance, searchable tables that students could look at to see grant eligibility based only on income and family size.

•Create a single net-price calculator for students to calculate the cost of attendance at every public institution in the state.

•Design grant programs that encourage timely completion and provide incentives for success in college, such as completion of credit hours, and not be focused on past achievement.

•Lower income limits, ensuring that the neediest students lose the least amount of aid in the event of budget cuts.

•Evaluate the effectiveness of existing grant programs and test innovative approaches that could be scaled up.

On the Brookings website, there is an interactive map where users can click on an individual state to see what percentage of state aid is given out based on family financial need.

The report was the work of a 14-member panel including Chair Sandy Baum, senior fellow, George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development; Matthew Chingos, fellow in governance studies and research director of the Brown Center on Education Policy, Brookings Institution; Allison Jones, senior fellow for postsecondary engagement, Achieve; Judith Scott-Clayton, assistant professor in economics and education, Teachers College, Columbia University; and Jane Wellman, executive director, National Association of System Heads.

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