"Winning the Future" Starts With the Pell Grant.

One of the key pieces in President Barack Obama's "win the future" State of the Union speech last night was investment in education. Obama created much buzz in the higher-education community during a SOTU-like speech in 2009, when he challenged everyone in America to pursue at least one year of higher education or post-secondary training. Last night, Obama promised that America would become competitive in higher education once again:

America has fallen to 9th in the proportion of young people with a college degree. [...] Of course, the education race doesn’t end with a high school diploma. To compete, higher education must be within reach of every American. That’s why we’ve ended the unwarranted taxpayer subsidies that went to banks, and used the savings to make college affordable for millions of students. And this year, I ask Congress to go further, and make permanent our tuition tax credit – worth $10,000 for four years of college.

Though Obama says he supports funding more access to higher education, the recent GOP budget proposal that promises to bring domestic spending to 2008 levels could undo one of those key investments in higher education: It would cut Pell Grant disbursements and other education programs that were boosted by the 2010 Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act. (And sadly, though Obama touted the "Race to the Top" competition, a higher-education version of that was eliminated from SAFRA in the final days of the bill's debate.)

If Congress really wants to help America remain competitive, it would make Pell Grants an entitlement program, which would mean moving it from the discretionary side of the federal budget to the mandatory side along with programs like Social Security and Medicare. Putting it on the same line of these other entitlement programs was long a dream of the late Sen. Claiborne Pell. The federal government would also get a big return on its investment in education, still one of the best means of social mobility. Granted, the buying power of the Pell Grant isn't what it once was given that marginal Pell Grant increases lag far behind skyrocketing tuition prices.

At the very least, it would be nice if Pell grants weren't subject to the partisan budgetary ping pong game. They're an important investment, and the fact that some Republicans in Congress are interested in rolling it back certainly isn't the way to "win the future."

-- Kay Steiger

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