Educators Question Bush’s Plan to Change PellBy Patricia Troumpoucis
A proposed rule change to the Pell Grant program in President Bush’s budget aims to guard against future budget shortfalls, according to officials at the U.S. Department of Education. But critics say it’s just a way to cap or slash the maximum Pell Grant award and would leave America’s economically disadvantaged students in the cold.
The program is already facing a $3.7 billion shortfall, but this measure wouldn’t chip away at that debt, according to the Education Department. It would instead act as a protective measure for the future, ensuring that there wouldn’t be another shortfall.
It is for “future Pell shortfalls. The scoring change would make it harder for us to end up with an appropriation that’s less than the estimated cost of the Pell program in any one year,” according to a source at the Education Department, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “All the rule change says is, for example, if Congress were to appropriate exactly what the president requested, then there would be no impact one way or the other.”
Still, not everyone sees it that way.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., called the proposed rule change an “obscure proposal” during a speech at the Community College National Legislative Summit last month in Washington.
Clinton pointed out that it gives the Education Department the power to reduce the maximum Pell Grant award if the number of students applying for grants exceeds the maximum capacity of the program. Clinton also said this proposal was “buried deeply” within the president’s budget in the hopes that no one would notice it.
In the budget, President Bush has requested $12.9 billion — an $823 million increase for the Pell Grant program to fully fund the cost of maintaining a $4,050 maximum award, according to the Education Department.
No students who qualify for a Pell Grant would be left behind, the department source said.
“I would agree that it was an obscure part of the budget, but it wouldn’t have any effect on the number of students. I think there’s some misunderstanding about this, but it doesn’t by itself require Congress to pass a law saying that there would be less money for Pell,” the source said. “The present budget would fund all the students who would be eligible for the program.”
Community-college officials also are expressing their concern about the proposed change and what it might ultimately mean for their students.
“It’s very important that all Pell-eligible students receive their full grant. If they don’t, it has an enormous impact, especially on community-college students,” said Linda Michalowski, interim vice chancellor for student services at the California Community Colleges chancellor’s office.
Michalowski underscored the importance of the Pell Grant program to community-college students.
“For community-college students, the Pell Grant is the only federal aid that they receive. And for many of our students, because they’re high-risk students, we discourage them from borrowing,” Michalowski said. “It’s ironic that loans are an entitlement, but (the) Pell Grant — which is critical to the success of the lowest-income, highest-risk students — is not an entitlement and relies on the administration and Congress to fully fund it each year.”
Laurie Quarles, legislative associate for the American Association of Community Colleges, added that most community-college students heavily rely on Pell Grants to pay for tuition and books.
“We focus on Pell Grants because we believe it’s critical for our community colleges. In fact, we believe that over 1.9 million community-college students are able to go to college because of the Pell Grant program each year,” Quarles said.
A variety of factors have contributed to the Pell Grant program’s budget shortfall, including the growing number of college-bound people, a spike in the number of people applying for grants and rising tuition costs, according to the Education Department source.
“All continue to drive the cost of the Pell Grant program,” the source said.
Rather than looking to change the way Congress sets the maximum award, which has remained at $4,050 for the third year in a row, more attention should be focused on increasing the maximum award, Michalowski said.
“We’re disappointed that Pell is staying at $4,050, and it needs to increase as the cost of education and cost of living increases,” Michalowski said.
“Everybody would like the Pell Grant to go up, but it’s expensive,” the Education Department source said. “There’s nothing in this proposal that says you can’t spend more money on Pell Grants. It just says that if you want to spend more money on Pell Grants to raise the maximum grant, then you have to pay for it.”
Nonetheless, Clinton said she’s going to keep a close eye on the proposal.
“This provision seems to provide the Bush administration with the authority to reduce the maximum Pell Grant in the event of a shortfall,” Clinton said. “I sincerely hope that is not their intention, but I will fight hard to prevent it from happening if it emerges as a serious legislative proposal.”
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