As budget cuts continue to dominate politics in Washington, DC, there was only one thing both sides of the aisle could come together and agree on in the latest round of budget cuts: protect the Pell Grant program.
The federal Pell Grant program is the federal government’s cornerstone financial aid program and provides up to $5,550 in scholarship aid to almost 10 million low and moderate-income college students each year. Roughly 27 percent of all undergraduates across the country receive some level of Pell Grant aid.
In August, the debt ceiling deal that passed contained an additional $17 billion in aid for the Pell Grant to fill a shortfall in the program, even as it reduces federal spending by over $900 billion over ten years.
This decision demonstrates that federal leaders know that student aid is crucial to millions of students in order to pay for college.
Our nation needs graduates with the skills and knowledge that higher education provides. Workforce projections forecast that by 2018, there will be jobs for as many as 2.2 million new workers with college degrees, but on our current trajectory, there will be a shortage of 3 million workers who need an associate’s degree or higher.
After years of stagnant funding that failed to keep pace with college costs, Congress provided desperately needed changes and funding increases to the Pell Grant program. Pell Grants grew from serving just over 5 million students annually in 2006 to now over 9 million students in 2011. The program increased yearly funding from almost $13 billion a year in 2006 to almost $36 billion a year 2011 through the passage of a series of high profile pieces of legislation. The maximum Pell Grant grew from $4,310 to $5,550.
The recent victory came at a cost. In order to make the deal to protect the Pell Grant, key benefits were scaled back on graduate student loans. In affect, some students now face a higher debt burden in order to maintain grant aid.
As students head back to school this fall, we have to be vigilant. The fight over cutting the federal budget continues and we can expect more shortsighted proposals to scale back student aid.