84,000 could lose Pell Grant funding

OPINION

Education. The path to profits, prestige and power. Whether the path includes a skilled trades apprenticeship program or formal education, learning provides lifelong access to better jobs and better wages and better benefits.

President Bush likes to call himself the “education president.” During the 2000 election campaign Bush promised to raise Pell Grants (federal grants to students from low- and middle-income families for college costs) to $5,100. In the final debate with Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 campaign, Bush said he will “continue to expand Pell Grants to make sure that people have an opportunity to start their career with a college diploma.”

So have Congress and the president made good on Bush’s promise? No. For the third year in a row Pell Grants will remain at the same level, $4,050. Note: College costs rose by 14 percent in 2004 and of the 5.3 million Pell Grant recipients, all but a handful come from families that earn less than $40,000 annually. (Despite annual tuition increases, the College Board says the grants are now worth $800 less in purchasing power than they were in 1975–76.)

Let’s look at the massive $388 billion omnibus spending bill passed just days after the election. By the way, one of the very first acts of the U.S. House of Representatives after the election was to vote down a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. They figured they pretty much already got the votes from the issue so they retired it until the next election when they’ll again need their tried-and-true propaganda: guns, gays and abortion.

This Congress sneaks through the depth of darkness to accomplish their political agenda. Of course the omnibus bill passed on a Friday (lost in the weekend news cycle). And buried deep in the huge mass of paperwork (1,000 pages) lies the real sneaky part, Congress didn’t vote to cut the Pell Grant program, they passed the buck and gave the Secretary of Education the power. Later the politicians will line up to voice their outrage and opposition to spending cuts in education.

Did things change? Yes. Before he resigned, Secretary Paige changed the rules on how a family calculates their available income to help with college costs. (Example: families used to be able to deduct state and local taxes, which are no longer allowed. Thus the family income appears higher and disqualifies thousands.)

According to Congress’ Advisory Committee on Financial Assistance and the American Council on Education (represents 1,800 colleges and universities), about 84,000 students will lose eligibility for Pell Grants. And 1.2 million students will see their grants reduced. (One study found that a $1,000 increase in Pell Grants would raise undergraduate retention rates by at least 15 percent.)

“In one of its first actions after the elections, Congress has cut student aid, even though college tuition costs are as expensive as they’ve ever been,” said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who serves as the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. “Over and over again, we’ve heard the president and Republican leaders say that a good education system is the best economic policy. So why would they entertain a proposal that would make it harder for even one young person to go to college? Congress should do everything it can to make college more affordable for students and their parents,” he said, adding, “astonishingly, this Congress will make it more expensive.”

How much will the federal government save by changing the rules? $300 million for the 2005–06 academic year. To paraphrase the famous Pekinite [Pekin is a town in west central Illinois], Sen. Everett Dirksen, “A hundred million here and hundred million there and pretty soon we’re talking the real money we need to fight the war on terrorism.” Or fund the ‘Star Wars’ missile defense system. (For the latest test the interceptor missile didn’t even get off the ground.)

Do Americans approve of these spending priorities? Stan Greenberg conducted an Election Day poll for the Institute for America’s Future. He found more than half of voters said investing in education and health care should take priority.

Once again, pay attention or the snake oil salesmen in Washington will take your money to their bank. And deny your kids an education.



Chris Stevens is a reporter for the Labor Paper, published by the West Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council in Peoria, Ill. This article is reprinted from the paper’s Jan. 20 issue by permission of the author.