Killing Pell Grants to Save Them?
Basketball Buddy and Education Secretary Arne Duncan went before the Senate Appropriations Committee this week to talk about the increased funding that the Department of Education has requested in next year's budget. You can read all about it here.
One part of the discussion with Alabama Senator Richard Shelby caught my eye. No, it wasn't the criticism of Race to the Top,which certainly is a flawed program. It was the discussion of Pell Grants, which are grants of federal money to help economically disadvantaged students afford college and break out of the cycle of poverty.
Pell Grants, at risk in the ongoing debt-ceiling negotiations, figured prominently in the conversation. Duncan and Harkin said that cuts to the program have already been made, but expanding its funding its necessary. Increasing poverty and the recession have created greater demand for Pell Grants, making them key to eliminating college entrance barriers among underprivileged students.
"If we scale back on Pell access, we'll simply have a lot less people going to college," Duncan said.
The proposed spending plan calls for a $5.6 billion discretionary spending increase in Pell Grants.
Shelby had harsh words for Pell Grants' increasing cost to government, which he said has doubled since 2008.
"We are on the brink of breaking our commitment to students who wish to attend college because the Pell Grant program is on a fiscally unsustainable path," Shelby said. He said that new laws that expanded eligibility coupled with the recession made the program more costly. "We cannot continue to throw money at this problem," he said.
When Harkin repeated his maxim that cutting Pell funding would be "like turning a chainsaw on yourself," Shelby responded that no policymakers "want to chainsaw any program that's going to sustain our education system."
But, he argued, the reality of the country's financial situation means "we're all taking a chainsaw to our budgets right now."
I don't know, Senator Shelby, I think the last thing to do to demonstrate our commitment to students who wish to attend college is to gut or kill a program designed to make that possible.
Although I grew up in a working class home, I did not qualify for Pell Grants by basically "thismuch" but I was able to cobble together a great education through scholarships, loans and work-study funds. But Pell Grants serve a growing population-- from 1999 to 2008, the number of high poverty public schools increased from 12 to 17 percent of all US public schools, and the number of poor students increased. Since that time the real effects of the current recession has really kicked in, so I am afraid that those numbers are probably higher by now. Students who graduate from these schools will need a substantial amount of financial support in order to be able to afford college, especially given that state funding cuts to post-secondary schools has merely accelerated the already dizzying yearly increases that colleges have made since the 1980s.That is a reality that Senator Shelby apparently does not want to face as to why the funding for the program has been-- and should continue to-- increase.
College graduates earn more on average than high school graduates. Our society receives a return on its investment hundreds of times over when it invests in a better educated work force-- and helps create a more stable democracy and just society, as well. Funding for college education especially is an investment in our future.
Cutting funding to Pell Grants is crazy.