Protect the Future, Protect Pell Grants

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by Mary Ellen Flannery

Even as millions of unemployed Americans are looking to higher education as a way to retool their skills and get back to work, it seems that some Congressional leaders are determined to make it more difficult for low-income students to attend and pay for college.

Once again, federal Pell Grants are on the chopping block. This time, more than half a million students and $4.3 billion would be cut from the program, under the proposed 2012 spending bill from the House Appropriations Committee. At the same time, the House proposal also would protect Pell dollars at for-profit schools, whose graduates can’t pay even $1 a year on their loans.

Cutting Pell Grants is exactly what you don’t want to do during an economic recession, experts agree. “This is America’s future,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-MD, at a Pell Grant press conference this past summer. “It’s not about the next election—it’s about the next generation…President Obama was right (when he said) we need to ‘out-educate’ to meet the challenges of the future.”

This year, Pell Grants are providing a ticket to the American Dream for 9.4 million college students. At some schools, like California State University, Fresno, more than 50 percent of students rely on the grants to pay their tuition, and help them prepare for much-needed careers in health care, education, law enforcement, and more.

Samantha Roberts, a NEA-Student member studying elementary education at St. Leo’s University in Florida, relies on Pell Grant funds to pay her tuition, and also help with rent and food. “Without my Pell Grant, I would have to work multiple jobs and go to school part-time,” she said—and, studies show, her chances of actually earning a degree and becoming a much-needed elementary school teacher would plummet.

You can urge Congress to protect Pell Grants for needy students by clicking here.

By 2018, this country will need 22 million new workers with college degrees to meet the burgeoning needs of employers—but it likely will fall short by 3 million, a recent Georgetown University study found. “And that, quite simply, is something (this country) can’t afford,” the authors wrote.

It’s something these students can’t afford either. A college degree is excellent protection in an economic downturn, said Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren at the New England Board of Higher Education summit this week [ed note: pdf link]. Even as the country’s current unemployment rate is 9 percent, he reported, “For those with at least a college education it is only 4.4 percent.”

Rosengren also cited statistics around degree and income: “While the median income of all households is approximately $50,000, there are substantial differences based on educational attainment…Those with just a high school diploma have about three-quarters of the median income. Those with professional degrees have more than twice the median income.”

So basically, by cutting Pell Grants to half a million poor students, the House committee would be ensuring that the poor stay poor. They no longer would have access to college—and the well-paid jobs that follow.

Specifically, the House bill would save $4.3 billion by: eliminating less-than-half-time students; immediately lowering the lifetime limit from 18 to 12 semesters; adding new sources of untaxed income to the determination of Expected Family Contribution (EFC), such as child tax credits, welfare benefits, and untaxed Social Security benefits; and other measures.

But, even as it cuts needy students at respected institutions, the House bill takes pains to make sure Pell dollars can continue flowing to schools with predatory lending practices. Those schools, which can’t show that their students actually get jobs when they graduate, would otherwise by blocked from federal funds by newly enacted “gainful employment” rules.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, the Appropriates Subcommittee has proposed protecting the grant maximum of $5,550 and current eligibility—but it did so by proposing to eliminate the six-month grace period that follows graduation for low-income borrowers. In its report, the Committee explains: “The Committee makes this change reluctantly, but believes it is preferable to reducing the maximum Pell Grant award.”

Complicating matters even further, it’s still unclear whether the “Super Committee,” the bipartisan group of lawmakers tasked with producing a deficit-reduction plan by Nov. 23, has its own designs on the Pell Grant program. It’s assumed that the committee is reviewing student loans and Pell. Says the Student Aid Alliance, of which NEA is a member, “’Review’ doesn’t necessarily mean cuts, but student aid advocates are…concerned…”

You can urge Congress to protect Pell Grants for needy students by clicking here.

Reader Comments

  1. Why would someone want to reduce or eliminate this wonderful program. Being that there were many factors working against me, these grants were the reason I was able to get an education.

    The Latino community benefits from these grants. Please do not make budget cuts to public education.

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