Resources & Publications

Appreciating Public Investments

Aug 23, 2012

By Patrick Reimherr

In a new brief, University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab highlights a problem many policymakers and advocates don't often think of: how recipients of government assistance might perceive both the monetary and non-monetary value of it.. Specifically, she examines the Pell Grant and how few low-income students really understand how or why they receive the grant:

As one undergraduate student recounted, "The aid officer just basically sends you an email saying this is what you're getting. But they don't really tell you where it's coming from or why you're getting it, so I don't know."  

In order to help students make the connection between their Pell Grants and understand the full message of the grant beyond the financial support, Dr. Goldrick-Rab makes a straightforward suggestion: have the U.S. President send an annual letter to each and every Pell Grant recipient.   The letter would explain to the recipient that the Pell Grant represents an investment in the student and in the future American workforce, and that the country supports the student to work hard, make a good faith effort to complete college, and make good on the national investment. 

To appreciate this public investment in the American student, or any public support for that matter, a beneficiary must realize that it is a public investment. Unfortunately, as demonstrated in recent research by Cornell's Suzanne Metler, and highlighted by former Reagan Economic Advisor Bruce Bartlett, all too often people fail to acknowledge government's role in society, even if they have experienced it in their own lives.  According to Dr. Metler, many who benefit from successful government programs are unaware that they have received anything.  This problem is especially acute in the education arena, where almost 60 percent of individuals who claim an education tax credit and 43 percent of Pell Grant recipients report not using a government program.  A letter from the President would improve awareness of Pell Grant receipt and provide to students emotional as well as financial support. As one of the students in Dr. Goldrick-Rab's brief states, the additional support during school helps, "[me] be more calm, so I don't have to worry all the time, and still get my schoolwork done."

The reality of the matter is that the government works in many ways to create a safe, healthy and vibrant country. Some are clear, such as public transportation. Others are less so, such as when the government provides a low-income student with a Pell Grant so she can attend college and stand a better chance in the labor market and in life. Raising awareness of the benefits provided by government and public support programs helps to build support for them, which is critical now as these programs face historic threats.

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