Sequestration threatens college faculty and students


by Mary Ellen Flannery

Every year, Upward Bound counselor Danette Madore sends scores of students to the most amazing places: college classrooms and admissions offices, science laboratories and art museums, dining halls and dorm rooms at the University of Maine at Presque Isle.

Danette Madore

Her students, who come from poor homes in the outer reaches of northern Maine and whose parents most likely did not attend college, thrive on the extra tutoring and life experiences provided by the federally funded program. “They know they need this,” said Madore. “And they really, really want it.”

But will they still have it, if Congress doesn’t prevent “sequestration” from going into effect on January 1?

“Sequestration,” the name for the mandatory, across-the-board 8.2 percent budget cuts that go into effect on January 1, could have devastating effects on students and faculty across the country—not to mention the country’s economy, adds NEA senior policy analyst Mark F. Smith. “It would be devastating to our future,” said Smith. “In education alone, more than 75,000 jobs would be lost, and critical research funding and student aid programs would be slashed.

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First, consider the consequences for the millions of students who rely on federal financial aid to pay for college. While Pell Grants would be protected from cuts in 2013, other college affordability programs, like federal work-study and the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, would be cut by 8.2 percent. In New York alone, where a consortium of public and private colleges already have looked at the potential effects, that would mean 6,500 students could lose work-study assistance and 7,000 could lose their opportunity grants.

Knowing how difficult it is to afford college already—the latest report from the Project on Student Debt said average debt increased 5 percent last year—any further cuts to aid “would only exacerbate that situation and prevent many students from attending higher education at all,” said Smith. (And remember these are our future entrepreneurs, nurses, pharmacists, and teachers—without them, we’ll be looking to other countries to supply skilled workers in the future.)

Next, consider the effects on faculty researchers, who rely on federal grants from programs like the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy, to do groundbreaking research. Sequestration would mean a cut of $2.4 billion in National Institute of Health-funded research alone—or basically the half the budget of the National Cancer Institute. (The total effect of sequestration on health research specifically would be $3.6 billion, according to ReseachAmerica.)

This is research that creates jobs and saves lives, points out Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Those of us who help address our health threats every day—and see the potential for saving lives and money—think this is no time to let down our guard,” he said in a written statement shared by ResearchAmerica.

And finally, consider the college access programs, like Upward Bound and the McNair Scholars, which help first-generation college students break the cycles of poverty in their families. In Presque Isle, Maine, Madore works with families who are making choices between, “food, oil, and medicine—they can’t afford all three.” But access to a proven successful pre-college program like Upward Bound, which provides year-round tutoring, college visits, SAT prep, personal guidance counseling, as well as intensive, residential summer programs, means helping these kids into careers in engineering and other fields.

Paul Hernandez

Paul Hernandez, an associate professor at Central Michigan University, serves as a “social mentor” for McNair scholars, first-generation students attending college who often need assistance in figuring out the bureaucracy and social hierarchies of higher education. “The issues vary: It can be about dealing with diversity on campus, there’s not a lot of diversity on this campus, or questions like ‘Am I good enough?’ I get that question a lot,” said Hernandez, who won NEA’s Reg Weaver Human and Civil Rights Award this past summer.

When programs like these are cut, Hernandez notes, damage is done on many levels. It’s not just the student who leaves school without the skills or degree necessary to get a job or achieve a dream. “On a national level, we’re really cheating ourselves of so much growth, so much creativity. These are people who are able to move forward and contribute in a very positive way to our country.”

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