As College Affordability Wanes, Will Congress Cut Pell Grant Aid?

June 25, 2012

JUNE 25, 2012

By Vickie Choitz

Forty years ago this past Saturday, the Pell Grant program became law. Over the past four decades, the federal government has provided a much-needed hand to over 60 million low- and modest-income students wanting to earn a higher education and advance in the workforce. Last year alone, 9 million students were able to get one step closer to the American dream because they received a Pell Grant to help cover the rising costs of a college credential. But, there is a dark cloud looming. Just as the program is serving an historic number of students struggling to afford college, some in Congress are poised to make deep cuts to the program - cutting off millions of students from low-income families, some who are right in the middle of their education. 

These cuts are personal to me and millions of students pursuing their education as a stepping-stone to the American dream. Twenty years ago, I was a Pell Grant recipient. I was the first in my family to go to college. Neither of my parents had the experience to advise me on how to choose a college, apply for financial aid, or select a major. And, they certainly did not have the ability to help me pay for college since they were struggling with money problems of their own. I was on my own, and it was scary looking at that huge college budget as an 18-year-old, albeit it was much smaller than what today's students face. But, when I saw the Pell Grant on my financial aid letter, I realized that I was not alone. The federal government - the nation - was on my side as I conquered new territory, tackled economic and academic challenges, and worked hard toward a bachelor's degree.

But my entire education was almost derailed because of Congress. I was what's known as an "independent student" - I was financially independent from my parents and had been since I was 16 years old. However, part-way through my college education, Congress decided to change the definition of independent students. Even though I was financially independent from my parents in every way, Congress decided I and other students like me were in fact "dependent" students. Congress assumed that I could simply apply for aid as a dependent student with my parents, but that was not an option, which meant I would lose my Pell Grant. It was devastating and I thought I might have to drop out because I was already maxed out on loans and working as much as possible without endangering my grades. Luckily, I was able to appeal and my grant was reinstated, but I felt a little betrayed by Congress, who clearly did not understand my economic reality. 

Today, about half of all undergraduate students are independent and many are Pell Grant recipients. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal ("Pell Grants Flunk Out") accused many of these students of using "creative accounting" to qualify for a Pell Grant as independent students. This accusation disparages the 36 percent of adult students age 25 or older - and therefore independent - who juggle work, school, and family to try to carve out a better future for their children. It maligns the thousands of military men and women who have served our country and, therefore, earned the status of independent students for purposes of Pell Grants and other student aid. It is a cold-hearted dismissal of the thousands of students who share my former reality: young, poor, and on their own.

Congress has been funding the growth of the Pell Grant program with stop-gap measures over the last few years, and that money will run out soon. Rather than fully fund the program so all needy students get the aid they need, some in Congress just want to cut students from the program or severely reduce their aid. For example, in March, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a budget resolution that would cut $153 billion from Pell Grants over the next 10 years on top of the $56 billion that has been cut from the program in recent budget agreements.

Others in Congress, though, understand the importance of the Pell Grant program both to individual students struggling to improve their lives and to our national economy, which will continue to need more and more educated workers over the long-term. The Senate Appropriations Committee gets it. Earlier this month, it passed the appropriations bill to fund education, health, and workforce programs for the next fiscal year (FY 2013). Despite threats to cut the program, the Pell Grant program was adequately funded. Just as importantly, no harmful eligibility cuts were made. If Congress is truly looking out for our shared national economic health, it will fully fund the Pell Grant program and reject any harmful changes to who is eligible for this financial aid.

Here's my wish for the Pell Grant in its 40th year: That the Pell Grant will be there for future generations of low- and modest-income students, just as it was there for me. Happy Birthday, Pell.

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