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Reality Check: Nation Cannot Afford Pell Cuts for Nontraditional Students

Jun 16, 2011

By Vickie Choitz

The national discourse on deficit reduction has shifted to how much to cut from domestic programs, a decidedly narrow focus that wrongly makes programs that benefit low-income people a ripe target.

Among the targets for deep cuts is the Pell grant program. It's a convenient scapegoat since program expenditures have increased with rising student need. Discretionary Pell program costs grew from $16.1 billion in 2008-2009 to $23 billion in 2010-2011 and are expected to reach $34.4 billion in 2011-2012. The number of recipients is expected to grow from 6.2 million in 2008-2009 to a projected 9.4 million in 2011-2012, representing a 52 percent increase.

Cuts to Pell Will Disproportionately Harm Low Income Nontraditional Students

Several of the proposed cuts will disproportionately harm nontraditional and underserved students, including low-income adults and out-of-school youth. For example, the Ryan House budget resolution and some higher education experts have proposed to roll back expansions in  federal financial aid eligibility formula supported by CLASP and passed by Congress in 2007 including the Income Protection Allowance (IPA) and auto-zero Expected Family Contribution (EFC). These provisions help low-income working adults, dislocated workers and low-income parents' access much-needed student aid to finance their education and get on the path to a family supporting job and career.

Other proposed cuts have included eliminating aid for less-than-half-time students or students who pass an Ability-to-Benefit test or process to gain aid eligibility, eliminating aid for remedial education, and increasing the requirements for full-time status in the Pell Grant program from 12 credit hours to 15 (and prorating down the grant levels for smaller credit loads). All of these cuts would significantly threaten access and affordability for all students, but particularly for low-income nontraditional and underrepresented students. The proposed cuts fail to reflect the demographic reality of today's college students and will undermine the nation's ability to meet growing demands for skills and credentials in the labor force.

Most people do not realize that yesterday's nontraditional student is today's traditional student. In 2008 and 2009, more than one-third (36 percent) of all undergraduates were adults age 25 or older. Forty-seven percent of undergraduates were independent students, 40 percent were enrolled in a public two-year college, and 46 percent were enrolled part-time. Forty percent were low-income, 32 percent worked full-time, 23 percent were parents, and 13 percent were single parents. Today's students are older, more diverse, and have more work and family obligations than what most people - and policymakers - think of when they envision the typical college student. Addressing this misconception will be critical to helping policymakers understand that cutting Pell Grants is detrimental for nontraditional students.

Cutting Aid to Nontraditional Students Undermines Nation's Ability to Meet Skills Needs

Cutting student aid and limiting nontraditional students' ability to access education and skills will significantly undermine the nation's ability to meet the demands for increasing skills and credentials into the next decade. Demand for skills today is reflected in our unemployment rates; less educated workers are more likely to be out of work. The demand for college-educated workers will keep rising over the next ten years.  By 2018, nearly two-thirds of the nation's jobs will require some postsecondary education or training, up from 28 percent in 1973. Our traditional source of labor is drying up. The country's population is aging, which is reflected in the flat growth in the number of high school graduates over the next decade. Some states will see the number of high school graduates decline by as much as 18 to 20 percent. It will be critical to educate more adult students to meet the skills and credential demands today and tomorrow.

The new brief by CLASP and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, Not Just Kid Stuff Anymore: The Economic Imperative for More Adults to Complete College, demonstrates why we cannot afford to cut nontraditional adult students' access to and financing for postsecondary education - as the recently proposed cuts to the Pell Grant would do.

With pressure to address the debt and deficit, policymakers likely will reduce the nation's spending in FY 2012. Addressing the nation's deficit is necessary, but cuts that undermine our economic security are not the answer. The nation has to broadly look at spending and revenue. And for the Pell Grant program, budget savings must not come on the backs of needy nontraditional, underserved, adult students. Our economy needs them, and they need Pell grants. That's just the reality of the situation.


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