Dems, Students Fight to Save Pell Grants Amid Debt Ceiling Talks

While Republicans push for more cutbacks, others fight for low-income students and students of color.

By Julianne Hing Jul 20, 2011

Alongside the debt ceiling battles raging on Capitol Hill, urgent negotiations are happening that could affect low-income students and students of color this fall. Pell Grants and other student aid programs have been put on the chopping block as House Republicans demand cuts before they agree to raise the debt ceiling.

On Tuesday, congressional leaders sent a letter to President Obama pressing him to protect the programs that the country’s neediest students depend on to get through college as he continues his debt ceiling negotiations. Their letter coincided with a rally and press conference in Washington, D.C. led by the United States Student Association to protect federal student aid.

"We need you to lend your voices, your Blackberries, your iPhones to reach out and lead your own revolution to make sure we preserve the future for you," said Maryland Democrat, Sen. Barbara Mikulski at the morning press conference. Mikulski opposed the proposed cuts to Pell Grants and other student loan programs.

"The other party thinks the last election was about cutting the budget. I thought the last election was about the next generation and what we need to do to make public investments so that yes, America can continue to lead the way as President Obama said, to outbuild and out innovate."

"In order to do that we have to out educate."

On Tuesday, chairs of the Congressional Black, Hispanic and Asian Pacific American Caucuses also signed a letter urging opposing the cuts. "We write to urge you to stay committed to that goal by rejecting any deficit-reduction proposals that require reducing the Pell Grant maximum award below $5,550, making harmful changes to Pell’s eligibility requirements, or reducing the in-school interest subsidy," read the letter. "Any such changes will effectively close the door of opportunity on millions of low- to moderate-income Americans seeking a college education."

Pell Grants, the need-based federal grants for low-income college students, have already weathered a tough handful of months. After the maximum yearly award was raised to $5,550 in last year’s student aid reform bill, commonly known as SAFRA, President Obama has had to fight Republicans every couple months to hold on to the $5,550 award. In February, House Republicans proposed cutting the yearly cap by $845, and just a few months ago House Republicans, this time led by Rep. Paul Ryan, again proposed slashing the maximum annual award–to just $3,040 a year.

The Obama administration has committed to protecting the yearly maximum of $5,550, but has signaled that it too is looking for other places to trim the program. Now that Republicans are again demanding more cuts, there are other concessions being thrown around, said Jose Cruz, vice president of the Education Trust, a national education advocacy group. Cruz said that among the proposals being discussed is one that would retain the maximum award amount but raise the eligibility requirements so that, say, students would need to take 15 credit hours per semester instead of the current 12 credit hours per semester to be considered a full time student.

There’s more. Currently, federal law stipulates that the families of students with an annual household income of $30,000 or less are not expected to make any extra contribution to the student’s tuition costs. But, Cruz says, Congress is debating rolling that number down to the 2008 levels so that only students with an annual household income of $20,000 or less would qualify for zero expected family contribution stipulation.

"People are asking whether $30,000 a year represents a truly needy family," Cruz said. "To even suggest that that’s not needy in this country, is crazy."

Raising eligibility requirements for Pell would directly hurt students of color, Cruz said. About half of all black American undergrads depend on Pell Grants to pay for college, and around 40 percent of Latino students get Pell Grants as well. Thirty-six percent of Asian and Pacific Islander American students depend on Pell. "If you’re a low-income student and you’re getting $5,550 a year to help pay for school and all of a sudden you’re told for this next fall, which is starting in just a few months, that you’re going to get $1,700 less, you have to find a way to earn that much more money through work, which goes against your academic interests."

Cruz added that if a student had to try to pick up more work to pay for school, they might not be able to take the proposed 15 credit hours per semester to qualify for the maximum amount of aid they otherwise would. And with so many states facing such severe budget shortages, Cruz said, many schools can’t even offer enough courses sections for students to bulk up their course loads even if they wanted to.

As it is, Pell Grant increases haven’t been able to keep pace with tuition increases in recent years. When the program was created in 1972 and as recently as the 1980s, the Tri-Caucus letter pointed out, the grants could cover more than half of a student’s school costs. These days, Pell covers only about a third of college tuition. Students are both getting getting less money in aid and leaving college with more and more debt.

Looming debt was the overwhelming reason students left school early, said Mortimer Neufville, president of the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, where 80 percent of the school’s student body is black, and over half of the school’s students rely on Pell Grants to pay their tuition, at Tuesday’s rally. Neufville said when he was the vice president of the academic affairs department, "over 90 percent of the students leaving the institution didn’t leave because of poor academic performance, they left because they could not support themselves" financially.

More than 9 million students receive Pell Grants, and the program, which has seen a sharp rise in eligibility in recent years because of demographic changes and the economic downturn, will cost the country $36.6 billion this year.

"It’s rather ironic, and I hope in future years we will not have to do this," Neufville said. "It should be so obvious for our Congress that the Pell Grants are an important part of the American Dream."

"It all seems like an attack, frankly, on low-income Americans who are trying to better themselves and contribute to the education goals we talk so much about in Washington," said Cruz.

"I understand we have a deficit problem, we have a debt problem, and we have to deal with it," said Sen. Ben Cardin at the USSA gathering. "But it wasn’t because we put too much money in education."

Cardin blamed the wars abroad that "we used a credit card to pay for," and tax cuts to wealthy Americans "who didn’t need it," for contributing to the deficit. "We need to get [the deficit] under control but we can’t jeopardize Pell Grants to do it."

Reps. Emanuel Cleaver, Judy Chu, Charles Gonzales, and Keith Ellison felt similarly. "Additional cuts to the Pell program or cost-saving constrictions in eligibility requirements or in school interest subsidies must be off the negotiating table," urged the lawmakers, who all signed the letter to Pres. Obama. "We cannot sacrifice the futures of students who are trying to improve their lives through education."

Cruz, of Education Trust, notes that lawmakers can no longer ignore the future. "If we are serious about once again leading the world in educational attainment … we must accept the fact that the demographics in America are changing and the students who can take us to that place, who can help us achieve our goals are those who have been traditionally underserved," Cruz said.

"Policy makers need to think long and hard about decisions they’re making as they deal frantically to tame budget deficits. They need to think about the opportunity deficit and think if that is sustainable if we continue to close the doors to people who need help the most."