The Clinton administration has firmly shifted its priorities away from widening access to colleges in favour of school improvements.
Education secretary Richard Riley confirmed the priority following President Clinton's budget proposals for 2000, adding that since coming to office in 1993, the administration had already succeeded in "opening the doors of college to all Americans".
He said: "Over the past six years, larger Pell (federal) grants, expanded work-study, lower borrowing costs on student loans and generous new tuition tax credits have made college possible for all who qualify."
But private colleges expressed regret that President Clinton failed to boost aid for students at their institutions.
David L. Warren, president of the Private Colleges Association, called the president's proposal a mixed blessing for private college students and their families.
"Although student-aid programmes received modest increases or no cuts, we are disappointed that despite a budget surplus of more than $100 billion, the president did not find the resources to fully fund these proven programmes," Mr Warren said.
Under the president's proposal, the maximum Pell grant would increase by $125, to $3,250. The federal work-study programme rises by 7.4 per cent, supplemental educational opportunity grants by 2 per cent, and the government's spending on programmes for disadvantaged students by 5 per cent, with a specific brief to prepare more Hispanic students for college.
Low-interest loans for needy students and similar schemes are pegged at 1999 levels.
For the first time, students and their families will this spring be able to benefit from two new tuition tax breaks that the administration estimates will save $7.5 billion for 12.7 million students and their families.