For the 2011 fiscal year, the Pell Grant program is facing a roughly $5.7 billion shortfall at a time when demand for grants is increasing due to the lingering effects of the Great Recession. If the shortfall isn’t closed, the maximum grant under the program will be cut by about $845 for the 2011 academic year. In all, about 9 million students will have their awards reduced if additional funding is not approved.
The trouble is that conservatives on Capitol Hill are draping themselves in supposed fiscal responsibility and may refuse to cover the shortfall. In their much-ballyhooed “Pledge to America,” for instance, House Republicans promised to reduce nondefense discretionary spending back to the 2008 level, which would cut about $9 billion from the Pell Grant program. The incoming chairmen of the House Budget and Education committees, Reps. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and John Kline (R-MN), respectively, are reportedly eyeing Pell reductions already. “If John Kline doesn’t fire the first volley, Paul Ryan in the budget committee is going to,” a Republican staffer told Inside Higher Ed.
Cutting Pell Grants, particularly amid a weak economic recovery, would be extremely foolhardy. For one thing, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, Pell recipients largely come from traditionally underserved communities. They are “more likely to be female and first-generation college students, and less likely to be white than those who don’t receive the grants.”
But keeping the Pell Grant program fully funded is about more than ensuring adequate access to higher education for these disadvantaged students (though that, by itself, is a worthy goal). It’s also about the country’s economic competitiveness, which depends on having a highly educated, 21st century workforce.
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