The Future of Low-income Students

Yesterday, a number of groups, including Campus Progress and The Education Trust, came together for "Save Pell Day." The reason? Pell’s in trouble. The budget passed by the House earlier this year reduced the maximum grant by 45 percent, kicking about 1.5 million students out of the program. Representative Paul Ryan’s proposal for next year reduces the grant a comparable amount. And in the debt-reduction talks, Pell has repeatedly come up as an area prime for cuts.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Pell grant program, it is money paid directly to low-income, qualifying students who can then put it toward tuition and college expenses. Unlike student loans, it does not have to be paid back. Pell's size has increased roughly 150 percent from 2005-2006 to 2010-2011 -- from $14.4 to $34.4 billion. The program is about 30 years old and is one of the signature pieces of federal loan legislation -- you could call it the "social security" or "medicare" of college access.

So, no surprise, Republicans are trying to cut it. In hearings earlier this year, House Republicans complained that the size of the grant is driving the cost of college up. No matter that only one reputable study has investigated the question, and the results found virtually no correlation between the grant and tuition costs. In fact, the Pell grant covers roughly one-third the annual cost of a four-year public college -- a few decades ago, it covered three-fourths the cost. Pell is lagging behind the trend of increased college tuition, not leading it.

On the other side of the aisle, President Obama has proudly claimed to have strengthened Pell with legislation in the stimulus that increased its size. Technically that may be true, but he’s patting himself on the back a bit too firmly. In total, the Pell program is smaller now than it was a year ago because of changes to how many Pell grants students can receive per year.

Like most right-wing political action in recent memory, the Republican push to cut Pell grants is informed less by a judgment of whether it is effective policy than it is by ideology: the frenzy to eliminate government for the sake of it. Meanwhile, the GOP has stood staunch alongside the for-profit college industry, which you couldn’t avoid finding evidence of committing wrongdoings if you tried.

Looking for spending cuts is a worthwhile task. But a program that makes small investments in low-income students who in turn will use their educations to earn higher wages and pay more taxes doesn't seem quite right as the first place to start slashing.