Undermining the Pell Grants
Published: November 25, 2004
Daunted by soaring costs, as many as a quarter of low-income students with grades and test scores that make them prime college material no longer even apply to college. This is bad news at a time when skilled jobs are moving abroad and a college diploma has become the minimum price of admission to the new economy. The Bush administration, however, has actually made this problem worse by cutting the federal Pell grant program, which was developed to encourage poor and working-class students to pursue higher education.
The cut could cause as many as 1.2 million low-income students to have their grants reduced - and as many as 100,000 could lose their grants altogether. That inevitably means that students will either drop out or take longer to finish their degrees.
The Pell program, which is meant to help students pay for tuition and other expenses, like books and housing, has been gravely underfinanced for a long time. Congress has tried to mask the problem by tricky bookkeeping. In particular, Congress failed to revise the maximum grant to keep pace with rising costs. Left untouched for a decade, the aid formula is still capped at around $4,000 a year - far less than what it takes to support a college student.
The Republican leadership tried to cut the Pell program by changing the formula for distributing the money in a way that would cut out students who had higher - although still inadequate - family incomes. The leaders backed off when middle-income families protested and student aid threatened to become an issue in the presidential campaign.
Back then, Congress agreed to hold off on any changes until it could look at the student aid problem as a whole during reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is due to come before the body next year. But with the election behind it, the administration slashed the program anyway, by roughly $300 million. Eliminating the resources to help needy and qualified students go to college will not even put a dent in the nation's growing deficit, but it will greatly diminish opportunities for upward mobility for the nation's youth.