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Protect the Pell Grant Program

Congress should take a good look at what it can do about the factors causing the rise in Pell program costs rather than cutting funding without regard to the consequences.

The Pell Grant program is in constant jeopardy these days. Proposed cuts to Pell were a part of the last round of budget negotiations, and some plans for dealing with the debt ceiling advocate substantial reductions. Cuts to the program seem so inevitable, in fact, that many higher education officials are turning to questions of how—not whether—cuts will affect the students who rely upon these grants. But there are other ways to deal with this valuable program’s cost increases than rushing to cut it.

Congress should take a good look at what it can do about the factors causing the rise in Pell program costs rather than cutting funding without regard to the consequences. For instance, the increase in Pell program participation coincides with the deep financial difficulties facing our nation. So a more logical way to decrease spending on Pell would be to continue programs that help with our economic recovery and get people into jobs with a sustaining wage so that they will not qualify for the program.

Decreasing the amount of money each student receives or the number of students who are eligible to participate in the program won’t mean the participants are any likelier to graduate or choose higher-quality programs. And it won’t do anything to address the steep trajectory of college prices driven by colleges competing for students by adding services.

Congress instead should increase the purchasing power of Pell by encouraging colleges to reduce their prices and increase the return on the grant’s investment by requiring colleges to provide high-quality outcomes for their students.

The Pell Grant program makes postsecondary education and training accessible to millions of low-income students each year—training that helps prepare them for today’s competitive job market. With unemployment above 9 percent, we should be using every avenue available to get more Americans into stable employment. Congress should be looking to address the factors that make Pell spending so high rather than simply cutting its bottom line.

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