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Criteria Announced For New College Aid Program

By Sam Dillon

The Department of Education announced Tuesday which low-income students might be eligible this fall for a share of $790 million under a major new aid program and estimated that it would disburse about 500,000 of the grants, which Congress created to encourage science, mathematics and language study.

In establishing the grants this year, Congress said that for students entering their first or second year of college to be eligible, they must have completed a “rigorous secondary school program of study,” but left it to the Department of Education to spell out the details.

To avoid the daunting task of reviewing the academic rigor of the nation’s 18,000 high schools, the department laid out broad eligibility criteria on Tuesday by which students could demonstrate that they had taken demanding course work. And Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings assured the states that she would not infringe on their control over educational curriculums, a tender point with many Republicans.

In a letter to governors and state superintendents of education, Spellings said that graduating high school seniors or students entering their second year of college might be eligible for the grants if during secondary school they had successfully completed four years of English; three years each of math, science and social studies; and one year of foreign language.

Other first- or second-year college students who may be eligible for the grants, Spellings said, include those who have received advanced or honors diplomas in any of the 19 states that offer such programs; those who have completed a rigorous course of study recognized by the State Scholars initiatives operating in 14 states; or those who have completed at least two Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, receiving passing scores on the exams for those classes.

Applicants must also be eligible under the income limits of the broader, $13 billion Pell Grant program. The new one-year grants range from $750 for college freshmen and $1,300 for sophomores to $4,000 for college juniors and seniors who are pursuing majors in the physical, life or computer sciences; mathematics; technology; engineering; or certain foreign languages. Applicants must have a 3.0 grade point average to be eligible as sophomores, juniors and seniors.

With the new program, Congress hoped to nudge states into establishing more rigorous high school programs and to encourage the study of subjects deemed critical to national security and competitiveness. But by not approving the new grants until February, lawmakers left federal officials only weeks to work out eligibility rules and administrative procedures for this fall.

Some 5.2 million students received Pell grants this year. An estimated 425,000 first- or second-year college students will receive grants worth $750 or $1,300 under the new program this fall, and about 80,000 third- and fourth-year students will receive $4,000 grants, Tom Luce, an assistant secretary of education, said in a conference call with reporters.

Luce said that the department would operate under the guidelines announced Tuesday for the 2006-07 and 2007-08 school years. Formal rules to be issued under traditional federal regulatory procedures will govern later years, he said.