Congressional leaders and the U.S. Department of Education claim they have no choice — cutting Pell Grants for thousands of college students, they say, is necessary to update federal aid formulas and restrict government spending. But for the 1.3 million students who will see their federal aid reduced — or the more than 80,000 who will lose their Pell Grant money altogether next year — those excuses won’t make it any easier to pay for college.
Explanations for the cuts to the federal government’s largest financial-aid program, which offers between $400 and $4,050 to about five million students per year, are less than convincing. Given Congress’ recent record on fiscal discipline, we find it difficult to accept Republican claims that the $300 million the government will save from the changes is necessary to avoid breaking the budget. If the Bush administration or Congress wanted to update the formulas that govern Pell Grants while ensuring that lower-income students were not adversely affected, we have no doubt that they could have easily done so. Instead, supporters of the changes have attempted to frame a stark choice: Either the government must reduce grants for all students currently receiving aid, including the neediest, or it must eliminate funds entirely for the program’s wealthiest recipients — students whose families all earn less than $45,000 a year. Ensuring that the Pell Grant program can expand to fulfill the needs of the growing number of college-bound students is, apparently, out of the question.
Fortunately, Yale has guaranteed that its policies will prevent any Yale students from facing a heavier financial burden as a result of these changes. While we continue to believe that Yale should embark on a more ambitious financial aid program, the University’s response to this legislative change is commendable. For current students receiving Pell Grants or recently admitted early applicants, Yale’s commitment to offsetting the federal government’s stinginess on Pell Grants comes as welcome news.
But it is distressing that schools like Yale must patch holes Congress has created within the nation’s financial aid system. And unfortunately, at many colleges across the country — particularly public universities that have already seen dramatic across-the-board increases in tuition — students will simply see much-needed aid disappear. Because other state and federal aid programs use the Pell Grant formula as well, many of these recipients will be especially hard hit.
Helping lower-income families pay for college once seemed to be an idea that transcended party lines. Both Democrats and Republicans, we thought, realized the value of providing a helping hand to students who aspire to college and to families who see a university degree as the ultimate symbol of the American dream. With Congressional approval of these latest cuts, though, we cannot help but wonder whether that remains the case.
At Yale, thankfully, the federal government’s skewed priorities on Pell Grants will not affect whether students are able to afford college. It is a shame that is not true for the rest of the country.