For Whom the Pell Tolls

The Hill reports that Pell Grants have become a sticking point between the freshman GOP and John Boehner for the passage of his debt-ceiling compromise plan. Representative Denny Rehberg described the right's grievances with the program on a talk show in April: "So you can go to college on Pell Grants — maybe I should not be telling anybody this because it’s turning out to be the welfare of the 21st century.” But if the GOP actually thinks Pell’s size is harming the economy, it’s certainly not making a strong argument.

Pell is, it’s true, much larger today than it was even a few years ago. It’s grown roughly 150 percent since 2006-2007. A number of nonpartisan institutes are concerned it may be too large and are analyzing its size. But according to New America, only 25 percent of that growth is attributable to the increase in the maximum size of the grant eligible students can receive. Instead, the increase is caused by changes to eligibility requirements and by the fact that more aspiring students are poor and fall under the $30,000 income bracket. If either party wants to make cuts to the program, reducing the maximum award -- as the GOP has called for -- is not a very savvy place to start. To cut the program's size, they would have to reduce the number of students who qualify for Pell.

Instead, the GOP's free-market ideology approach is expanding Pell in the short- and long-term. By calling for austerity now and sidelining economy-boosting projects, "We are committing an unforced economic error," according to David Leonhardt of The New York Times. By failing to invest in education now, more families will struggle financially in the future. Per Leonhardt: “The larger principle is that budget cuts that reduce the number of college graduates only add to the budget deficit -- by reducing economic growth -- in the long run.” It’s a cost-benefit carnival. The fewer students who go to college, the less money they have. The GOP approach to these programs is to cut back on government. At the moment, that's an effective policy to expand Pell.