Clinton concerned about 9/11 scholarship fund

September 10, 2008 5:58:56 PM PDT
Former President Clinton has been in talks with the directors of a huge college scholarship fund for Sept. 11 victims to address complaints by some families that the program has given out too little money. "There are a lot of real problems here," Clinton said Wednesday in an address to a group of Sept. 11 families.

The Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund raised more than $128 million in donations and pledges in the years following the terrorist attacks, with the help of several big corporate donors and public appeals by Clinton and former Sen. Bob Dole.

The money was set aside to help the children and spouses of Sept. 11 victims pay for college. Through June, the fund had given $27.3 million to nearly 1,000 students and signed up thousands more children to receive aid once they reach college age.

But over the past few years, some families have complained that the grants being handed out by the fund's caretaker, the Minnesota-based Scholarship for America, are too stingy.

Some students said they expected large scholarships that would cover much or all of their tuition, only to receive a few thousand dollars.

Kathleen Wisniewski, whose husband died at the World Trade Center, said she'd always assumed the scholarship program would pay the full tuition for all three of her children and was stunned to learn when her eldest daughter applied for aid in 2003 that it would cover only a small portion of her bill.

She said her daughter's annual grants from the program have ranged from nothing in her first semester, when the charity said it hadn't received her application in time, to a few thousand dollars her sophomore year, to a high of $8,600 as a junior.

"It seems to be completely arbitrary," she said. "Not knowing where you stand from year to year is very stressful."

She said her daughter, who is entering her senior year, owes nearly $19,000 to her college and has moved back home and taken two part-time jobs to pay the bill.

Others families complained about bureaucratic hurdles or said they saw their aid slashed after they began earning interest on payments from the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund. The program awards scholarships based on need, and families with higher incomes qualify for less aid.

Clinton said families should be able to get information about how much money they qualify for and explanations of the amounts they've received. He said there should be a great deal of "transparency and accountability" in the program.

"From my point of view, this is your money," he told the families, whose complaints were first reported in the New York Post last year.

Clinton was to meet Wednesday night with Scholarship for America's chief executive to discuss the problems.

Scholarship for America spokeswoman Janine Krantz Fugate acknowledged that there have been some complaints but defended the program's performance.

The scholarship fund, she said, was never intended to cover 100 percent of the families' college expenses - just the portion they couldn't afford through savings and traditional loans.

Despite the fund's large size, she said, there isn't nearly enough money to give every student a big stipend. Giving full tuition to the nearly 4,500 students currently in the application pipeline would cost at least $443 million, according to the charity's estimates.

Most of the students eligible to receive aid will be hitting college in a wave that begins this year and continues through 2022.

"We are trying to do as much as we can for each family, while being careful that we have enough money down the road," Fugate said. So far, she added, that has meant having to make tough decisions about who needs help the most.

"In the cases of a number of families, their incomes are simply too high to demonstrate need," she said.

The organization determines need by applying a formula very similar to the one used by the federal government for its student aid programs.

Clinton's planned meeting with Scholarship for America president and chief executive Clifford Stanley followed nearly two years of off-and-on discussions with the group.

Some changes have already been made at Clinton's request.

Scholarship for America had originally intended to take any funds left over when the program expires in 2030 and roll them into programs available to any needy students. That plan was abandoned last winter. Now, the group has pledged to make any unexpected surplus funds available to the grandchildren of Sept. 11 victims.

Fugate said the organization was open to making other changes, as long as they didn't lead to spending practices that weren't sustainable.

"This is the only fund of its kind, and we are learning as we are going," she said.

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