Many government services are guaranteed. Regardless of need, tax credits and deductions are available to every qualified taxpayer. Every eligible person has access to Social Security benefits. The concept is simple: The federal government establishes guidelines and each American who fits them benefits accordingly — except when it comes to education.
Pell Grants help make college affordable for low-income students. Since they don’t have to be repaid, Pell Grants give exceptional help to millions of qualified undergraduates every year. Yet the amount of money students receive from the federal Pell Grant program depends on the program’s funding.
Each year, the government appropriates a certain amount of money and when it runs out, remaining students (though still technically entitled to financial aid) are simply out of luck. Consequently, even if you fit the government’s guidelines, there’s no guarantee you’ll get any money for college.
This means that students who received Pell Grants this year might not receive them next year, even if their circumstances stay exactly the same. To make matters worse, according to the Department of Education, the program’s funding will decrease by $270 million next year. Qualified would-be recipients will be turned away even earlier.
During the presidential campaign, George W. Bush claimed Pell Grants were a top priority, but this professed support has quickly disappeared. The Pell Grant shortfall continues to increase as appropriated funding shrinks. To say that other concerns take priority is to imply that qualified grant recipients don’t deserve to pursue higher education. President Bush’s policies also advocate decreasing aid after the first and second years of college. Often referred to as “front loading,” snatching back much-needed aid in the middle of a student’s education defeats the purpose of Pell Grants by making it harder for students to graduate.
Congress is currently considering the Higher Education Reauthorization Act for 2004 and neither the maximum award amount nor total program funding is expected to increase. One of the most promising investments the United States can make in its future — making education accessible and affordable for people regardless of income, creating a better-educated work force and providing opportunities for the disadvantaged while strengthening society as a whole — is being arbitrarily thwarted by a conservative-driven funding cut.
The Bush administration’s indifference toward Pell Grant funding is especially strange for a party that claims revitalizing the economy and creating a skilled work force are top priorities. Bush’s 2004 budget proposal (failing to increase Pell Grant funding) further hinders the program’s effectiveness.
The jumbled logic is alarming: The Bush administration seems to think that the United States can afford to spend $87 billion rebuilding Iraq, yet it can’t afford a lesser $270 million to maintain Pell Grant funding. It would seem that Congress supports spending money on the wealthy but not helping working families send their kids to college.
Congress should make the Pell Grant program an entitlement program so that all qualified students receive the assistance they deserve. Without Pell Grants, college isn’t an option for millions of students because they just can’t afford it. A discretionary, under-funded Pell Grant program is proof that many Republicans are dismissing the education of lower income students as frivolous and unnecessary.
Kathleen Garr, Daily Utah Chronicle, University of Utah.