After a series of delicate negotiations, Department of Education officials have agreed to change proposed regulations that would have cut in half the number of schools eligible for a grant program for struggling colleges.
The compromise also signaled at least a temporary cease-fire in the continuing battle between predominantly black schools and community colleges over the $130 million the program distributes each year.
The so-called Title III program (a reference to Title III of the Higher Education Act of 1965) is now the largest program of federal aid to colleges.
Black college officials say the program was intended to serve their schools from the start. But they complain that the more-numerous community colleges and even private white schools have been chipping away at their share.
Because of its political popularity, the program has survived the shift in federal aid during the 1970s from institutional grants to student aid. President Reagan has even recommended an increase in its funding.
Dr. Samuel Myers, executive director of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, an umbrella group of more than 100 black colleges, said that while sponsors of the original legislation used "a euphemism of 'developing institutions,' " it was clear their legislative intent was to give most of the money to black schools.
The first year, 1966, only $5 million was appropriated, and black schools got $3 million. Over the life of the program, black schools have received slightly over half of the nearly $1 billion in grants. But their share has dropped to about 40 percent in recent years, Myers said.
Small white colleges began looking for ways to be "developing institutions" during the 1970s, as all schools began feeling the financial crunch pushed by declining enrollment, inflation and the energy crisis.
The money was supposed to be used to develop new courses or improve faculty standards. But in 1979, a General Accounting Office report said waste and mismanagement by some schools had made the program "largely unworkable." That led to congressional hearings, then amendments in 1980 to tighten up the program, and the flap over the new eligibility regulations.
The regulations at issue were proposed in July. They set up three main eligibility standards, covering the number and size of a college's student aid grants, and its average cost of educating a student. Failure to meet any one of the three meant loss of eligibility.
All the college interest groups fighting for a chunk of the money complained that the all-or-nothing eligibility standards would knock many of their member schools out of the running. So negotiations started and Rep. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), chairman of the House postsecondary education subcommittee, recently announced a compromise that would return the program to a point system, under which the schools' total scores in the three key areas determine whether they are eligible.
Also, schools would compete against similar institutions, rather than having two-year schools compete against four-year, and public against private, according to a subcommittee aide.
The first proposed standards would have cut 600 of the 1,200 schools in the program. Under the compromise, it is expected that another 200 to 400 would be eligible, the aide said.
William Clohan, deputy secretary of education, said he felt the changes would be good for the program. Rep. Carl D. Perkins (D-Ky.), chairman of the full committee, also agrees with the compromise, an aide said.
The most troublesome requirement in the first version of the regulations was one requiring that schools have "high average" awards of finacial aid to be eligible. Thomas Melady, assistant secretary for postsecondary education, testified last month that this excluded some schools who have lower tuition and fees and thus make smaller financial aid awards.
Black and community college leaders disagreed on the definition of another eligibility standard that said "substantial" numbers of students at each school must be eligible for Pell grants for the needy. The proposed regulations set 35 percent as "substantial." The community colleges wanted that lowered to 10 percent. The black college officials wanted it raised so that 45 percent of a college's students would have to be recipients of Pell grants, not just eligible for the program.
Richard Wilson, lobbyist for the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges, said he felt the agreement was fair to all parties. He acknowledged that historically black schools feel their program is being infringed upon. But he pointed out that about half of black college students attend a community or junior college.