Twenty-two years ago, Sarah Harder was a single mother with two children and no child support. With the help of her parents, who agreed to sustain her and her two children while she completed college, she returned to the University of Wisconsin in La Crosse, and obtained degrees in English and history. Today, she is an administrator at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire.
She is also the president of the American Association of University Women.
As an administrator, Harder has developed programs to help older women return to college and she has seen firsthand how current student loan regulations do not reflect the needs of nontraditional students -- students who do not have families helping them through school, but rather, have families that are dependent on them.
Harder went on to graduate school, remarried and had two more children. She said her first activities outside the classroom were "informal activities helping women return and later I moved into an administrative role, helping women return, putting together the combination of child care and financial aid which I knew was particularly critical to women returning to complete their educations."
And now, the AAUW under her leadership, has developed a series of legislative proposals to do that which were recently introduced in the House as the Student Financial Aid Equity Act of 1985. Primary sponsors are Reps. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Timothy Penny (D-Minn.). It is to be offered as amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965, which is up for review this year.
The college population has changed dramatically in the 20 years since that act was passed, when the typical student was an 18- to 22-year-old white male, living in a dorm. According to statistics assembled by the AAUW, more than half of the nation's 12.4 million college students are women. In 1983, there were 1.5 million post-secondary students over the age of 34, 66 percent of whom were women. Four-fifths of this group attend school part time, and women are more likely to be part-time students than are men. As part-time students, many are ineligible for the most popular forms of federal student grants and loans. In 1984, 31 percent of the women entering the freshman class came from families with incomes of less than $20,000, compared with 26 percent of the men.
Kristin Stelck, public policy associate and lobbyist for the AAUW, says the combination of inflation and rising costs of tuition make student aid of vital importance to women and their families. "It's not good enough to just fund the programs as they exist. Right now, we need to evaluate who is getting the money and ensure that it's fairly distributed and that the policies treat men and women fairly. The reason we think they don't is that they were designed with the traditional student in mind."
Changes being proposed would make students going to school less than half-time eligible for aid on a pro-rated basis. Thus, a woman holding a job, and perhaps caring for children or an elderly parent, could get some federal loans while taking less than six credits, which may be all she can manage.
Another change would require financial aid officers to count child care and transportation -- older women with children don't live in dorms -- into the cost of a student's college attendance along with books, lab fees and similar expenses.
A new provision, accepted last week by the House post-secondary education subcommittee, would allow a student who drops out of school to care for a new baby to defer loan repayment for up to six months. At present, if a student drops out of school, loan repayment can be deferred only for illness, injury, military service or joining the Peace Corps. That clause was triggered by the recent case of a Wisconsin mother whose request for deferment was turned down by the Department of Education.
The bill would also help students on welfare who are currently caught in a "Catch-22" situation when financial aid is frequently counted as income and can make them ineligible for medical, nutritional or welfare aid. Only 2 percent of the parents receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children attend post-secondary school, according to the AAUW.
Older women students going back to college have fewer resources and more family responsibilities than the traditional student. Like Sarah Harder, they want to make an investment in themselves that will eventually help their families. A society that recognizes this and helps them does nothing but help itself.