The Politics of Pell Grants

The 40-year-old Department of Education Program becomes a campaign issue for Obama, Romney.

The cost of college and number of Americans attending college has dramatically risen, creating an even greater demand for Pell Grant program funds. President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney have different approaches to sustaining the program. (Photos: Getty Images)

Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Pell Grants keep popping up in this year’s presidential election.

President Barack Obama wants to expand Pell Grants, which are given to low-income students to attend college, and allow increases that would track inflation and the rise in tuition costs.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s educational plan would “refocus Pell Grant dollars on the students that need them most and place the program on a responsible long-term path that avoids future funding cliffs and last-minute funding patches.”

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But Romney’s vice presidential pick, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, who wrote the GOP’s budget plan, wants to reduce Pell Grant funding by at least 19 percent. Last week, Romney broke away from Ryan’s plan at an event, saying, “The Republican budget called for Pell Grants being capped out at their current level. My inclination would be to have them go with the rate of inflation.”

The Pell Grant, one of the largest programs administered by the U.S. Department of Education, has historically received bipartisan support. But in these tough economic times, the Pell Grant has become jeopardized.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed Congress for the passage of the Higher Education Act (HEA). That legislation was aimed at helping lower and middle-income students attend college either with grants or low-interest loans.

By 1972, Rhode Island Democratic Senator Claiborne Pell sought to reform the HEA. He wanted a basic grant, hence the Pell Grant, to serve as the foundation for an undergraduate’s financial aid. The Pell Grant program was added to provide money that does not need to be repaid. Every five or six years, Congress re-examines the program and reauthorizes it.

According to the Department of Education, in the 1973-74 academic year, 512,866 people applied for Pell grants. In 2009-10, nearly 19.5 million students did so. Such massive increases naturally bring more costs.

Obama increased Pell Grants in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, raising the maximum Pell Grant award to $5,635 for the 2013-14 award year—a $905 increase since 2008, according to the White House website.

Amber Mullins, a community college student in Tampa, Fla., and the mother of two, wrote on the Department of Education blog, Some in Congress are proposing to cut the maximum Pell Grant, which would be detrimental to me and millions of other students. It would also likely extend the time it will take for me to complete my education. The reason it will take longer to complete my degree is that without that money, I will have to work longer hours at a part-time job, to support my family instead of focusing on my degree.”

But many academics see Pell Grants differently. A study by the Center for American Progress notes, “Expanding access is still important. But…the strategy that has worked so well in the past has reached its limits. We can’t get to where we need to go from where we have been.”

Some Pell Grants have already been eliminated. In 1994, Pell Grants for prison inmates were discontinued by Congress. Summer Pell Grants have recently been cut.

Instead of cutting Pell Grants completely or diluting the program, some have recommended changing certain requirements for the grants.

Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Fastweb.com and FinAid.org, suggests limiting eligibility to 12 semesters instead of the current 19 semesters. In his paper about Pell Grants he writes that the program should establish “limits by degree program, so that students in certificate or Associate's degree programs would have lower limits on the number of semesters of Pell Grant eligibility.”

The ongoing Pell Grant political drama is certain to increase over the next few weeks.

On Wednesday, the Obama camp unveiled a new Spanish-language television ad. Its focus? Romney and his education and financial aid policies.

The ad says: “President Romney ... What would that mean? For our kids, a steeper climb to college. Up to 2 million Hispanic students could see their Pell grants cut by almost a thousand dollars. Thousands more would lose their federal work study. And under his plan, there would be less funds for community colleges. Register today to make sure Romney doesn’t shut these doors." 

College financial aid advisors say the need for the Pell Grant program is critical, now more than ever, and that politicians should see it as an investment.

"Presidential candidates and Congress talk about how to balance the budget and financial aid is on the chopping blocks in many cases," Steve Booker, director of finanical aid at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., says. "Students, families and the college community would highly encourage decision makers on the budge to fully commit to the Federal Pell Grant program. It is difficult for countries to create jobs without a well-educated workforce and it is even more difficult for families to change their trajectory without education."

What do you think we should do with the Pell Grant Program? Explain your plans in the comments

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