Pell Grants – and the Students Who Need Them – Should Not be Sacrificed in the Name of Balancing the Budget

Posted March 9, 2011

By John J. “Ski” Sygielski, President, Mt. Hood Community College and Chairman, American Association of Community Colleges Board

Is cutting Pell grants at a time when college students and their parents are struggling to make ends meet, much less afford a pricey college education, the answer to help balance the federal budget?

House Republicans recently announced a plan to cut spending on Pell grants, which provide financial aid to students who need assistance the most. The proposal is geared to save the government $100 billion over 10 years, offsetting the cost of maintaining Pell grants for nine million students, according to the federal government.

But at what cost to the higher education of those who need the money the most?

Such cuts would harm students’ abilities to complete college and create a better life for themselves. And, looking at it more broadly, decimating Pell would also prove costly to our country.

If Congress succeeds in cutting the U.S. Department of Education’s $63.7 billion 2010 fiscal year budget by $4.9 billion, approximately 15 percent of that will come from the college-aid program. This would cause the current per-student maximum for Pell grants to shrink by $845, from $5,550 to $4,705.

This is a substantial out-of-pocket expense for the 74 percent of Pell grant recipients and their families who can only contribute $1,200 or less to their college education. The majority of those receiving this aid are children of single parents, minorities and the physically disabled. They also are most likely the first in their family to attend college. Many of those in need of the grant have lost their jobs and are returning to school seeking skills that lead to more lucrative careers.

According to, college tuition rates have gone up much more than Pell grant awards. With the rising cost of higher education, the last thing we need is a decrease in financial aid.

The average 2010-11 tuition increase was 4.5 percent at private colleges and 7.9 percent at public universities, according to The College Board. These figures are substantially higher than both the general inflation rate and the average increase in personal incomes. The substantial growth in Pell grant recipients just over the last year is proof that any cuts would have far-reaching consequences.

According to the Federal Student Aid Data Center, for the first two quarters of the 2009-10 academic year, the number of Pell grant recipients grew to 6.2 million from 4.7 million, while the dollars distributed increased to $13.9 billion from $8.9 billion. The average grant amount also grew to $2,223 from $1,885, which is an 18 percent increase. These numbers are proof of the escalating need for this financial assistance.

Even if the federal government limits the cuts to graduate school federal loans and summer school students as reported, there are far-reaching repercussions. The grant limitations may deter graduate students seeking law degrees, doctorates and other higher education levels. With a more limited number of physicians, lawyers and other professionals of this type, the competition would be reduced, driving up the cost of their services for already financially strapped Americans.

Eliminating Pell grants for summer school students means that many students who sought to complete their college education in less time would be forced to add semesters during the school year, most likely paying more in the long run for room, board and other expenses. This also places an added burden on working students, who rely on summers to make college more affordable and take the burden off of their parents.

A significant aspect of President Obama’s campaign platform was to make higher education more affordable and accessible to Americans. Reducing Pell grants by 15 percent will surely have a significant negative impact on the number of students seeking to further their education.

By reducing the number of U.S. college graduates and increasing the debt of those who do manage to complete their higher education without Pell grant assistance, the government is providing a great disservice to the potential of this country and its economic stability. In fact, the proposed savings could be more costly to our country in the long run.

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 Last Modified: 3/9/2011 02:10:02 PM