This year's annual conference of the nation's historically black colleges and universities appeared to be well timed for Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, coming just as President Bush prepared to sign into law the largest increase in federal student aid since the GI Bill. But while Ms. Spellings basked in the praise of several of the college presidents in attendance, many made clear that the Pell Grant increase approved by Congress this month was not nearly enough for their struggling colleges and students, and that they expected her to do more.
"While we applaud the increase in the Pell Grant to $5,400," Melvin N. Johnson, president of Tennessee State University, told Ms. Spellings, "I want to make sure that we truly understand the plight that our students that are attending our institutions really have."
Hundreds of academically qualified students are "purged" from historically black universities because of financial need each year, and many of those who do complete their studies face burdensome levels of loans, Mr. Johnson said.
Some presidents drew specific connections to the war in Iraq, telling the secretary that the Bush administration was spending money overseas that could be spent on colleges to help improve the American economy, and warning that even returning soldiers were not being given enough money to attend college.
The $450-billion spent so far on the war "would support 22 million scholarships at our institutions," said Joe A. Lee, president of Alabama State University.
Michael L. Lomax, president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund, said that even if Ms. Spellings cannot force change within the administration, she could do more personally to help students understand their college-financing options. He said the continuing state and federal investigations into the student-loan industry had helped highlight abuses, but had not helped students understand what they can do to protect themselves in the face of aggressive lender tactics.
"The country hasn't learned from the mortgage-lending crisis," Mr. Lomax said. "I guess we're just going to wait until we have to learn from the education-lending crisis, when even more Americans are forced to default on loans that they never should have taken out on terms that are inappropriate."