Making College Less Accessible for Our Students

This week we explore sequestration’s effect on the ability of students to afford a college education in the United States.

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Graduates enter Mississippi State University's Humphrey Coliseum on Saturday, May 11, 2013. Sequestration is making it difficult for many students, particularly those from low-income families, to afford a college education in the United States. (AP Photo/MSU/Megan Bean)
Graduates enter Mississippi State University's Humphrey Coliseum on Saturday, May 11, 2013. Sequestration is making it difficult for many students, particularly those from low-income families, to afford a college education in the United States. (AP Photo/MSU/Megan Bean)

Author’s note: On Capitol Hill “sequestration” may mean a percentage point or two in lower GDP growth, but beyond the Beltway it is more than an abstract economic concept. It means real pain for real people.

Each week in our “Sequestration Nation” series, we will highlight examples of the many ways in which the federal budget cuts may hurt you and your neighbors. This week we explore sequestration’s effect on the ability of students to afford a college education in the United States. 

With college-degree holders expected to make $1 million more in lifetime earnings than those without postsecondary degrees, and workers with high school diplomas almost three times as likely to be unemployed than those with college degrees, a postsecondary education is more critical than ever. Nevertheless, as college students and their families can attest, accessing higher education has become more expensive than ever before. Between 1985 and 2012 the cost of college rose by almost 500 percent—more than four times faster than the rate of inflation.

In light of these figures, many college-bound students are faced with the fact that their peers are incurring record amounts of debt. The overall amount of student-loan debt in this country is more than $1 trillion. The harsh realities of financing higher education have led many students to mobilize against the impending doubling of Stafford student-loan interest rates from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1, 2013. What many students may not be aware of, however, is that as of March 1, sequestration has already begun making their quest for higher learning more expensive.

Thanks to sequestration, a number of programs that help students pay for their college education are being cut, meaning that many students with the qualifications to earn a college degree, particularly those from low-income families, could find themselves priced out of the market.

Sequestration will cut the federal work-study program by $51 million in this year alone. This program provides federal funding for colleges and universities to hire students needing financial aid in on-campus or community-oriented jobs. The wages the students earn then go toward the cost of their education. But due to budget cuts at the Department of Education, 33,000 college students will be dropped from the program and will no longer have access to this critical source of funding for low-income students. “For some of them, it means going to college or not,” said David Tjaden, chair of the National Education Association’s Student Program. Parents such as Diana Reese of Overland Park, Kansas, are incredulous. “We’ve been fed the line that education is the way out of poverty and the path to a middle-class income and lifestyle, but with college running at least $20,000 a year or more—and that’s for a public state school—who can afford higher education but the already wealthy?”

Sequestration is also forcing cuts to the Department of Education’s TRIO programs, which are aimed at helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds access higher education. One such program is Upward Bound, which provides certain students who are low income, from rural areas, or whose parents did not attend college with a summer immersion program to help prepare them for college. TRIO programs stand to lose $42 million in the 2013-14 academic year due to sequestration, affecting tens of thousands of students.

Additionally, sequestration is cutting funding for the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grant program, also known as TEACH grants. This grant program was established as a way to incentivize students to pay it forward by providing federal funding to students who commit to teaching for at least four postgraduation academic years “in a high-need field at an elementary school, secondary school, or educational service agency that serves students from low-income families.” While in college, students can receive tuition grants of up to $4,000 a year if they commit to the program. Unfortunately for these well-meaning students, sequestration will reduce their grant awards by 6 percent, while still requiring them to meet the same postgraduation service obligation.

In a previous post, we highlighted that in spite of the sacrifices already made by military families over the past decade, sequestration has resulted in many schoolchildren from these families receiving reduced education funding. For some of these college-bound students, sequestration is dealing them another cruel blow. That is because sequestration will reduce their Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants by 10 percent. These grants were established to provide college-funding support to students who have parents who died fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For low-income college students from the District of Columbia, sequestration will be particularly difficult because Washington, D.C., officials expect a 5 percent to 7 percent cut in the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program, or DC TAG. According to The Washington Post, DC TAG “provides more than 6,000 high school graduates with up to $10,000 a year to defray the cost of attending an out-of-state public university or up to $2,500 a year to attend a private university in the Washington area or any historically black private college in the United States.” For students such as Sharnita Brice, this cut could mean the difference between continuing her college education or not. “I can’t ask my mother for money … [s]he’s struggling, herself—I’m trying to help her,” said Brice.

And if the aforementioned cuts weren’t enough, for students who still need to secure loans to attend college, sequestration means they will pay increased loan-processing fees. Processing fees for Direct Subsidized or Direct Unsubsidized Loans will increase from 1 percent to 1.051 percent. Meanwhile, processing fees for Direct PLUS loans will increase from 4 percent to 4.204 percent.

Finally, while Pell Grants, which provide funding to low-income undergraduates to pay for their education, were spared from sequestration for the 2013-14 academic year, there is no guarantee that they will be spared if sequestration continues beyond this year.

Viewed in isolation, any one of these reductions might not seem drastic in and of itself. But many of the aforementioned programs are specifically designed to provide pathways for students from underprivileged backgrounds to attain a college education. Reductions of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars in funding could therefore mean the difference between going to college or not for many low-income students. While a college degree is still seen as a key to the American Dream, thanks to sequestration, for many it may turn into a pipe dream.

Elsewhere around the country, sequestration continues to affect the lives of Americans. Below are just a few of the many examples.

How is sequestration affecting you and your community? Make your voice heard by contacting us at with your stories about the effects of federal budget cuts.

Low-income Boston families dropped from housing program

“Sequestration has been devastating,” according to Lydia Argo, spokesperson for the Boston Housing Authority. Cuts to the federal government’s Housing Choice Voucher Program have put local housing authorities such as the Boston Housing Authority, or BHA, in unprecedented situations. “We’ve never been in this situation—we’ve never had to cut people off the program,” said Argo. Boston resident India Cox was relieved this spring to have finally been accepted into the housing-subsidy program after several years on the waiting list. But thanks to sequestration, that relief was short lived. Just a few weeks after her acceptance, Cox received a follow-up letter informing her that her acceptance was being rescinded. “It was snatched away,” said Cox. “I’m frustrated. I just wanted to live someplace safer with my daughter.”

As the immigration debate heats up, sequestration weakens the border around El Paso, Texas

With the debate over immigration reform entering a tenuous phase, the last thing proponents of comprehensive reform want to contend with is a less-secure border. Yet sequestration is ensuring there will be fewer Customs and Border Patrol, or CBP, vehicles along the Mexican border, according to Rob Russell of the National Border Patrol Council. In the area around El Paso, Texas, the CBP is dealing with sequestration cuts by doubling agents up in vehicles in order to conserve gas. “This is one of the first times we’ve seen it this severe where they’re going to start doubling up agents. We’ve never had to do this,” said Russell. “Smugglers will take advantage of that. They’re going to see fewer vehicles out there. That’s going to be pretty obvious to them,” Russell said. According to the local border-patrol agents’ union in El Paso, the agency has gone so far as to ask agents to turn off their engines while doing surveillance.

Sequestration reduces pre-K opportunities for children in eastern Tennessee

For Dorothy Pippin, executive director of L.B.J.&C. Head Start in Cookeville, Tennessee, sequestration means “pretty sad times.” That’s because sequestration cuts will cause the Crab Orchard Head Start facility, which the L.B.J.&C. program runs, to close this fall. L.B.J.&C. faces a funding cut of $466,000 as a result of sequestration. “That’s a pretty hard blow,” said Pippin. In addition to the Crab Orchard facility, L.B.J.&C. will be forced to close at least one other Head Start facility and reduce all 4-year-old class sizes from 20 students to 17 students to deal with reductions to its budget. Overall, L.B.J.&C. expects to decrease its Head Start enrollment by more than 11 percent as a result of sequestration.

Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph ends school-bus service

About 400 students on Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph—students who otherwise would ride the bus to school—will have to walk this fall instead, thanks to sequestration. This has parents such as Kelly Moon worried about their children’s safety. “I was actually riding my bike pulling my four-year-old in the bike trailer and we were hit by a car. So it’s not a matter of will it happen, it did happen,” said Moon. Because of sequestration, this fall the base will have to make do with $800,000 less in its logistics budget. As a result, school-bus service will cease. “I understand this is a cost-conscious culture, but we don’t feel compromising the safety of our children is worth doing,” said Moon.

Kwame Boadi is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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Kwame Boadi

Policy Analyst

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