Another Reason Why We Can't Risk Cutting Pell Grants
by Halley Potter
Earlier this spring, I wrote about the House Republicans' attempts to enact devastating cuts in the fiscal year 2011 budget to programs that help low-income students pursue college. Since then, many of these programs, such as TRIO and GEAR UP, have indeed seen substantial budget cuts for 2011. But Pell Grants, the main form of federal assistance for most low-income college students, have fared reasonably well. Although funding for summer Pell Grants was cut, the maximum grant award per student was maintained. (Republicans had proposed cutting the maximum award by 15 percent, from $5,550 to $4,705.)
Now that 2012 budget negotiations are underway, however, Pell Grants and other supports for low-income students are once again in jeopardy. And a new report from The Education Trust provides another reminder of why cutting funding for low-income college students would mean adding insult to injury.
The authors of the report, "Priced Out: How the Wrong Financial-Aid Policies Hurt Low-Income Students," used three criteria to determine whether an institution effectively serves low-income students. They looked for schools that enroll a proportion of low-income students at least equal to the national average (30 percent), charge low-income students a percentage of their family income that is no greater than what the average middle-class student pays (which works out to $4,600 or less for low-income students), and have a six-year graduation rate of at least 50 percent.
Shockingly, only five of roughly 1,200 four-year colleges and universities studied met all three requirements. All five of these schools--California State University: Fullerton and Long Beach; City University of New York: Bernard M. Baruch and Queens; and University of North Carolina–Greensboro--are public universities.
The five universities that made the cut deserve credit for making a serious commitment to serving low-income students. But the lack of any public flagship universities or top-ranked private institutions is troubling. As my colleague Richard Kahlenberg has noted, research shows that students at highly selective colleges have numerous advantages over their peers at less selective ones. This report and others reveal, however, that low-income students' access to these universities is severely limited.
Considering this dearth of affordable, accessible, quality college options for low-income students, it is not surprising that enrollment and graduation rates for low-income students are so low. According to a 2009 study, only 9 percent of students with family incomes in the bottom quartile and neither parent graduated from college earn bachelor's degrees by age 26, compared to 68 percent of students with family incomes in the top quartile and at least one college-graduate parent.
Pell Grants are one of the few supports available to low-income students who beat these odds. We can't afford to see what happens if we begin eroding that support.