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2011 August 8 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Aid At Risk

AP photo/J. Scott Applewhite

A small group of college students who are Facebook friends make an appeal to President Obama and Congressional leaders to reach a compromise on the debt limit.

C  O  V  E  R     S  T  O  R  Y

Aid At Risk
Pell Grants Threatened as Congress Wrangles Over Spending
By Paul Bradley

As the 2011-12 academic year draws ever closer, growing numbers of students have little clue about what aid they might receive. And financial aid officers at colleges are in no position to tell them.

See Chart:

Where The Pell Money Went

Blame it on the protracted congressional wrangling over the debt ceiling.

That prolonged and contentious debate has thrown the Pell Grant program into uncertainty, along with the millions of
low- and moderate income students who rely on it.

Despite the stalemate, however, Republican and Democratic leaders were not far apart on the Pell program. The debt-ceiling bill crafted by House Republican leaders would provide $17 billion in supplemental funding for Pell Grants through 2013, while the Senate plan calls for $18 billion. Uncertainty remains because lawmakers must approve a regular Pell appropriation later this year as part of the federal budget.

But some House Republicans — who have compared Pell Grants to welfare — are balking at any increase in Pell spending, saying they were elected to cut government spending.

Cuts and adjustments in the Pell program have been widely anticipated on top of the $8 billion in cuts approved earlier this year. A budget passed this year by the House of Representatives would cut the maximum grant by 45 percent and restrict eligibility by 1.5 million students.

The program has been growing rapidly in recent years due to the recession, making it an inviting target for budget-cutters. In the coming school year, the program is expected to spend $35 billion on 9.4 million students. Republicans have suggested restricting student eligibility or reducing the maximum amount students can receive, now set at $5,500 a year.

Speaking to a Senate subcommittee, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the
Pell program must be preserved.

“You can’t sacrifice the future to pay for the present,” Duncan said. “I want all of us to work together (to reduce debt) in a way that does not undermine the education of our nation and the education of our children.”

The proposals have alarmed supporters of the program. Dozens of college presidents, students and education advocates have been visiting Capitol Hill to persuade lawmakers to protect Pell Grants, which have been helping needy students attend college for 30 years. In many cases, advocates say, a Pell Grant can determine whether a student will go to college or not.

In a letter to President Obama, a group of education advocates ranging from the Association of Community College Students to the AFL-CIO said cuts to Pell would undermine the president’s goal of producing an additional 5 million college graduates by the year 2020.

“Pell Grants make college possible for over nine million Americans,” the letter said. “They enable the neediest among us to get the postsecondary education required to increase their earning potential and keep America competitive in the global economy. Even after the significant increases in the maximum grant that your administration secured, the maximum Pell Grant will cover less than a third of the cost of attending a four-year public college next year — the smallest share in the history of the program.”

“Make no mistake: cutting Pell Grants at this time — either through a reduction in the maximum award or through harmful eligibility changes — will reduce the number of people who can attend college and earn a degree.”

A letter to Obama from the heads of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American caucus, said cuts to Pell would have a disproportionate affect on minority and poor students. The U.S. Education Department has estimated that 76 percent of Pell recipients had family incomes of $30,000 or lower.

“If Pell Grants are reduced in any way, attending and completing college will be beyond the financial reach of the vast majority of low-income students; students who’ve played by the rules, who’ve taken the classes, and earned the grades they need to attend college,” the letter said.

The Pell program has grown explosively during the economic downturn and currently has an $11 billion deficit. According to the US Department of Education’s most recent statistics, more than 8 million students received Pell Grants in 2009-10, including more than 2.8 million students attending public community colleges.

Supporters of the program fear that it will fall victim to an agreement to boost the nation’s debt ceiling. A bipartisan group of six senators working to reduce spending called for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education to collectively reduce spending by $70 billion over the next 10 years, though it would be up to congressional spending committees to determine specific cuts

Noting that Pell grants are critically important to community college students, the American Association of Community Colleges and the Association of Community College Trustees have mounted a joint advocacy campaign to fight the cutbacks.

In 2009-10, community colleges received about $9.3 billion in Pell Grant funding. Of the 8.9 million students that received Pell Grants in fiscal year, 35 percent were community college students.

“We've seen a dramatic surge in enrollments throughout the community college system due to the economic recession," said Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO of AACC. “More people are turning to community colleges to help them keep their dreams of higher education alive, and they need funding to stay in school and earn the credentials needed for the workplace.”

“Discussions on Capitol Hill about changes to the Pell Grant program should factor into them the real lives and people who could be impacted. The Pell Grant program has historically been a vital support for many seeking to better themselves.”

Among the most vocal opponents of cutting Pell Grants is the Education Trust, a Washington-based non-profit that advocates for needy students. The group organized a “Save Pell Day,” urging supporters to use e-mail and social media to get the attention of policy makers who will determine the future of the program.

In an email to supporters, the trust said “the Pell Grant is among the most vulnerable of federal programs being considered in Washington’s debt-reduction talks.”

The group said “there could hardly be a worse time to cut Pell,” noting that “the movement for all kids to do the work that it takes to graduate from high school ready for college and career is just now gathering momentum. Slashing Pell now would be a cruel and dirty trick to play on millions of students who work hard and play by the rules, only to run head first into the enormous barrier of college affordability.”

Education Trust Vice President Amy Wilkins declared “Save Pell Day” was a resounding success, generating thousands of emails to congressional leaders and producing more than a million “Save Pell” tweets on Twitter.

But the group’s work was drowned out by the caterwauling over the debt ceiling. Wilkins said the program’s future remains in doubt but will become clearer once a debt ceiling deal is struck.

She said the debate will continue into the school year.

“This fight will continue into the fall when the congressional committees will begin to parcel out funding for various programs,” she said.

It’s Your Turn! CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q:  What would a significant reduction in the Pell Grant program mean to your college?
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