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Reducing Pell grants dims future for many

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Esther Cepeda
February 17, 2011
— During this week of dueling federal budget proposals, it looks as though low-income college students are about to take a hit to one portion of their financial aid packages that doesn’t mire them in post-graduate debt: the Pell grant.

In the very worst case, if Congress cuts $4.9 billion from the Education Department’s $63.7 billion fiscal year 2010 budget, the current per-student maximum grant of $5,550 will drop by $845 per academic year. That’s about a 15 percent cut to the college aid program that, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid website, would represent the largest in the history of the Pell grant program.


And what a history. When it began in the 1973-74 academic year, $47.6 million in Pell grants were handed out to 176,000 low-income college freshmen. In 2008-09, the program handed out $18.3 billion to 6.2 million needy students.


When I say needy, I don’t mean it in relative terms. We all know that with the exception of the wealthy in this country, college tuition—plus fees, room and board, and exorbitant textbook costs—is a tremendous burden beyond the immediate grasp of the middle class. For them, a college education can now only be secured through a patchwork of federal and private student loans that leave families and graduates thousands of dollars in the hole before a first job offer is ever accepted.


Pell grants go only to the neediest of the needy, based on a complex equation that takes into account a student’s family size, income, assets and the tuition at the school to be attended. In 2008-09, families with an annual household income of less than $50,000 who proved they could contribute a mere $1,200 or less to their student’s college education represented 74 percent of all recipients.


Pell grant recipients are most likely to be single parents, African-American, Hispanic or Native American, physically disabled, or students whose primary language is not English. They’re also likeliest to be the first in their families to attend college and establish a family expectation of attaining higher education that can ripple through generations.


To these kinds of students—even the smartest, most hardworking of the bunch—$845 less per year could be enough to keep them from pursuing a college degree at all.


Now let’s look at the best-case scenario. President Obama’s budget plan seeks to keep the Pell awards level but does so by making trims and increasing interest on graduate-school federal loans.


So take a low-income student who has navigated an undergraduate degree and add an even bigger debt burden for the loans that must be used for costly graduate studies and you have yet another hurdle to low-income and minority students entering medicine, law or other professions.


Next is the elimination of Pell grants for summer students. I don’t worry about those who can find internships and other meaningful opportunities over the summer. But so many low-income students rely on summer to make up remedial coursework or complete credits so they can finish their studies faster—and therefore cheaper—that I fear this too will disproportionately burden them.


The Pell program is on course to serve 9 million students in 2012 due to a combination of increased family need and decreased state and school-based financial aid. But instead of looking for creative ways to keep funding level—more income verification and academic accountability measures spring to mind—right when the need is greatest, Democrats and Republicans are considering cuts that would harm poor, first-generation prospective and current college students.


Doing less for our poorest students is not the way to uplift persistently low college graduation rates for minority and low-income scholars, or the best method toward building a society of educated innovators who can help America “win the future.” In fact, these are the kind of savings we can least afford.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her e-mail address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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