Obama: Benefits and more schooling

Saturday, May 09, 2009
Union Leader

By Suzanne Bates
Union Leader Correspondent

New Hampshire college and university leaders said yesterday that they would do what they could to support the Obama administration's plan to help the unemployed go back to school.

"I think the Obama announcement puts its finger on a fundamental truth: the best long- term investment we can make is in education," said Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University.

If the state follows President Obama's lead by changing the rules for its unemployment insurance, it could help the school's non-traditional students, said LeBlanc.

"There's been a structural penalty and a disincentive to invest in one's own re-tooling," he said.

People who have been laid off and want to go back to school often have to give up their monthly unemployment checks. And if they decide to return to school, they often don't qualify for federal aid because eligibility is based upon the previous year's income.

Under rule changes Obama outlined yesterday, the Labor Department will ask states to make exceptions during economic downturns so that the unemployed can keep their benefits if they go to community college or pursue other education or training.

State governments, not Washington, decide who is eligible for unemployment, and they generally require anyone collecting assistance to be actively looking for work. That can complicate plans to attend school.

The Education Department, meanwhile, will encourage colleges to factor in the financial situation of an unemployed person applying for Pell Grants or other education and job training aid. Starting in July, the maximum Pell Grant, which helps low-income students afford college, will receive a $500 boost to $5,350.

Community colleges applauded the President's plan. George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, said Obama would remove obstacles that keep the unemployed from heading back to school. The association represents about 1,200 such colleges.

"Sometimes we don't give our government credit for doing things that make sense," Boggs said. "It's great to see government stepping in and removing these disincentives."

However, one state-level critic accused Obama of avoiding the question of cost.

"Like so many of the President's initiatives, the answer for who pays the bill is state taxpayers and future generations," said South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican and one of Obama's sharpest critics on spending issues.

The University of New Hampshire would reexamine the way financial aid is awarded if the state changes its regulations, said Erika Mantz, director of media relations.

The school would look at waiving the deadline for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and would look at current income instead of past income when making financial aid decisions, she said.

But Obama's proposals would fall flat unless the state changes its regulations.

At Nashua Community College, President Lucille Jordan said her school will provide whatever assistance it can based on recommendations from the administration and New Hampshire policymakers.

"We certainly believe that education and career training are key to employability and professional attainment for individuals, and a strong workforce for the state," said Jordan in a prepared statement.

When the law allows the school to consider a change in circumstance that could affect an individual's eligibility for a grant, it does, she said.

At Southern New Hampshire, LeBlanc said the university is already trying to help its unemployed alumni by offering them 50 percent off graduate course tuition. The university has so far received a "modest response" to the program, with five alumni currently signed up and more incoming in the summer.

"The notion of the program was very much in the spirit of President Obama's announcement," said LeBlanc. "This is an opportunity for them to retool and invest in themselves." The school also decided yesterday to create a new $500,000 scholarship fund for students who are undergoing financial hardship.

The school is having many conversations with students whose families are struggling because of unemployment or changes in hours or wages, said LeBlanc.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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