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April 05, 2011

A New Low in Higher Education

Halley Potter

As part of their plan to slash more than $100 billion from the president's proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2011, House Republicans have passed a bill that would cut funding for the U.S. Department of Education by $4.9 billion, an 8 percent reduction compared to 2010 spending. In an article in Education Week, Joel Packer, former director of educational policy and practice at the National Education Association and principal at the Raben Group, said the House cuts "absolutely would be the largest cuts ever in history for education programs."

As The Century Foundation's Gordon MacInnes notes, the cuts are devastating for K-12 education. And programs that help low-income college students would be hit particularly hard by these cuts. Under the House Republicans' plan, the maximum award per student for Pell Grants—need-based grants to low-income college students that do not have to be repaid—would be reduced from $5,550 to $4,705. Funding for Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, which provide additional need-based grants for low-income students, would be eliminated entirely. In addition, the federal TRIO programs and GEAR UP, which both help low-income students pursue higher education, would lose $24.9 million and $19.8 million, respectively, compared to 2010 funding levels.


Particularly in this time of economic downturn, cutting funding for these programs would be devastating for low-income college students, most of whom would not attend college but for financial aid. Financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz estimates that 1.7 million students (roughly a fifth of all current Pell Grant recipients) would no longer be eligible for Pell Grants under the proposed cuts. Those that remain eligible would receive smaller awards than before.

Losing part or all of a Pell Grant can have a huge impact on a student's quality of life and ability to continue her education. Student Support Services at Northern Kentucky University asked students how a reduction in their Pell Grant might impact their academic success and then compiled some of their stories into a powerful video. One student said that her Pell Grant allows her to live on campus, avoiding a dangerous and arduous four-hour commute on public transportation. Another responded that a cut in Pell Grants would mean "me and my family would have to eat a lot more Top Ramen."

Students from across the country face similar situations. Victoria Wilburn, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told her local radio station, "If I didn't have the Pell Grant, I honestly…I'd be working another job or two, on top of the two jobs I'm already working." David T. Corgan, a 35-year-old Minnesotan who enrolled in community college after losing his job in retail, currently struggles to make the maximum Pell Grant cover his expenses. Under the proposed cuts, Corgan would lose $845 from his grant, a difference which could force him to take fewer classes or drop out. Save Student Aid—a Facebook campaign launched by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG) and the U.S. Student Association (USSA)—has more than 10,000 followers, and the group's page is full of similar stories from students who rely on Pell Grants.

These testimonials are particularly touching in light of the bigger picture. Low-income students are less likely than their middle-class peers to enroll in college and, once enrolled, less likely to graduate. According to a 2009 study, 68 percent of students with family incomes in the top quartile and at least one college-graduate parent earn bachelor's degrees by age 26, compared to just 9 percent of students with family incomes in the bottom quartile and neither parent graduated from college.

Even when you control for high school achievement, low-income students are still less likely to take the SAT or ACT or to attend four-year colleges. A whopping 80 percent of students with both standardized test scores and incomes in the top quartile attend a four-year college within two years of graduation, compared to just 44 percent of those with standardized test scores in the top quartile and incomes in the bottom quartile. In The Century Foundation book America's Untapped Resource, Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl call these high-achieving, low-income students "the low hanging fruit in any policy strategy to increase SES diversity in four-year colleges." Low-income students deserve the same chance for postsecondary education as their middle-class peers. And since many low-income students are academically prepared for college but either do not enroll or fail to graduate, they are a sensible target group for efforts to increase college graduation rates to meet the goals set forth by the Obama Administration and others.

Research shows that the federal grants and programs which receive cuts under the House plan have had a positive effect on increasing college enrollment among low-income students. Pell Grants have been the foundation of federal assistance for low-income college students since the early 1970s. While there is no control group for comparison, Lawrence Gladieux notes that when the maximum Pell Grant was at its peak as a share of the cost of college attendance, college enrollment rates for low-income students increased substantially. However, after that peak in the mid-1970s, when the maximum Pell Grant covered more than 80 percent of the average cost of attendance at a public four-year college, the purchasing power of the maximum Pell Grant dropped, covering just 40 percent of the average cost of attendance at a public four-year college in 2001. The cuts in the House plan would further erode the effectiveness of Pell Grants. John "Ski" Sygielski, chairman of the American Association of Community Colleges Board, explains in an op-ed that, for some Pennsylvania community college students, the proposed Pell cuts would make the difference between being able to take a full course load and having to drop to part-time because they can no longer cover their costs.

In addition to Pell Grants, TRIO programs such as Upward Bound and the Talent Search Program have been shown to increase postsecondary enrollment and exceed the Department of Education's goals. The GEAR UP program, which starts preparing low-income students for postsecondary education beginning in middle school, is positively associated with increasing parental involvement and expectations for their children's education, as well as improving students' and parents' knowledge about the benefits of and opportunities for postsecondary education.

In asking for a 22 percent increase in education spending for 2011, President Obama understood "the importance of investing in education—a key driver of America's future economic prosperity—even as the Administration works to reduce the annual Federal deficit." The House plan, on the contrary, makes the penny-wise, pound-foolish mistake of jeopardizing the educational future of low-income students in exchange for short-term savings.

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