Pell Grant cuts threaten college affordability


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Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan is causing a bit of a furor in the higher-education circuit.

The budget plan, a recent version of which bears the title “Path to Prosperity,” aims to moderate what some see as a catastrophic government debt by cutting numerous government programs, reducing spending, and redesigning Medicare. Regardless of partisan divides and opinions about the national debt (and deficit), ideological adversaries should agree on one thing: Any proposed cuts should not occur in programs that buoy people who are struggling.

Pell Grants, which provide financial assistance to low-income students, are one such program (Emily Inman, a member of the DI Editorial Board, receives a Pell Grant and did not participate in the discussion or writing of this editorial.) The federal grants provide up to $5,500 per year, on a sliding scale based on need, to college students nationwide. Pell Grants are not the singular cause of our fiscal problems, and cutting them is not the solution; the Editorial Board hopes that our U.S. representatives will resist the pressure from fevered peers to be “fiscally responsible” long enough to avoid slashing sensitive programs.

It would be the worst kind of blinkered partisanship to target only Ryan: Even President Obama’s proposed budget from February would remove year-round grants and exclude more students from receiving full awards. But Ryan’s proposal goes above and beyond; it would cut up to $850 from each students’ grant — money that many struggling students can’t replace.

Two U.S. representatives visiting Iowa City Monday mentioned Pell Grants. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., reminisced about paying $8 per credit hour when a DI reporter asked her about Ryan’s plan. “You can see there’s tremendous inflation in higher education,” she said, indicating a need for greater affordability. Bachmann did not, however, provide any substantive support of or opposition to Ryan’s plan.

Iowa’s Rep. David Loebsack, himself a recipient of Pell Grants, took a much stronger stance. He told the DI that he intended to fight for the grants that helped him succeed. “I worked hard for my education, but I also had a lot of help with financial aid,” he said.

Despite the specter of freeloaders imbedded in our national consciousness, many Pell Grant recipients would agree. Recipients of the grants, according to a 2009 study, are almost twice as likely to be financially independent and have their own dependents than students who don’t receive grants, even if they are about equally likely to hold full-time jobs. The vast majority of Pell Grant recipients in the 2009-10 school year made less than $30,000 per year; 70 percent of students who receive grants qualify for the complete award.

The grants have been expanded massively in the last few years, and the program is running a nearly continuous shortfall. Thus the reason for the proposed cuts: Pell Grants are proving unsustainable.

But broad cuts in awards can’t be the solution. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last month that college lobbyists are pushing for any cuts necessary to be made not to awards but to the summer grants — something that echoes Obama’s plan. But if the federal education budget is suffering, perhaps other alternatives should be explored; an end, say, to a widely decried Race to the Top program ($900 million requested by Obama) could be a start, followed by a serious interrogation of the role of the federal Department of Education (how much federalization is really needed in academic standards?).

There is one other potential cost-saving measure: a Department of Education requirement that institutions that receive Pell Grants prove that they ready students for “gainful employment,” which aims to exclude for-profit colleges at the center of recent controversies. GOP lawmakers are attempting to fight this rule, passing a quick amendment in the U.S. House in February to prevent its enaction; this amendment was not included in the last-minute budget deal.

Attacks on Pell Grants hit home for many University of Iowa students. Approximately 20 percent of UI students receive federal financial aid through the Pell Grant program, which prevents them from having to take out costly loans. With student debt skyrocketing, rising tuition, and a shaky economy awaiting new graduates, Pell Grants are more important than ever.

There’s no word yet on the details of the budget deal considered by Congress this week, although Obama has said the Pell Grants are maintained at their current maximum value; students will have to wait to see if the 2012 budget makes any reductions in eligibility.

It may be tempting to heedlessly slash programs when vocal sections of the electorate are baying for (fiscal) blood. But serious evaluation must be conducted into both the necessity of these particular funding reductions, and the best method to cut costs. Students across America are relying on their federal legislators to duly investigate all options before shrinking programs.

Otherwise, like Ryan’s plan, they could damage those with the least ability to absorb a fiscal blow.

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