Last week, in a modest step toward fulfilling his long-overdue 2000 campaign promise of raising Pell Grants to $5,100, President Bush proposed a $500 increase to bring the maximum Pell Grant to $4,550. However, with more low-income high school graduates looking toward higher education, demand for these grants has soared, putting the program $4.3 billion in the hole for this year. The program’s deficit has pressured politicians into raising the eligibility standards for receiving Pell Grants, effectively cutting the grant program. The Bush administration and Congress need to take pro-active measures ensuring the affordability of college tuition for everyone — the president’s current proposal is merely window dressing that may in fact make college tuition increasingly unaffordable.
In announcing the Pell Grant increase, President Bush did not reveal any plans for increasing the number of grants given, a noteworthy factor given the program’s deficit. Perhaps he hopes that the changes in eligibility standards, a set of guidelines that carefully snuck through Congress just before Christmas, will help cover the gap. This change will eliminate some 90,000 recipients from the program and cut grant amounts for over 1.3 million by updating the tax brackets to reflect the already outdated 2002 state tax levels. According to the Detroit News, some 3,300 students receive Pell Grants here at the University, and an estimated 600 will be losing some aid in the fall. Overall, this half-hearted reform will save $300 million, an insignificant proportion of the program’s deficit. In other cost-saving measures, White House spokesman Trent Duffy proposed a reduction in government subsidies to private lenders in order to save money, and Democrats have been asking that the government make the loans itself. Whether such ideas will come to pass is unclear.
In today’s economy, the importance of higher education cannot be overstated. It has become increasingly difficult for students to find suitable employment without a college diploma, and given the higher earnings of college graduates, programs like the Pell Grant practically pay for themselves in the long term. With tuition rates soaring by more than three times the rate of inflation, it is important to recognize the troubled waters in which students find themselves are strongly connected to the fiscal recklessness of the Bush administration. Federal cuts prompted by the record-setting deficit have cost state and local governments over $175 billion during the span of Bush’s first term, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, leaving states with average budget reductions of 8.4 percent. Consequentially, states have been forced to reduce their higher education funding, in turn triggering tuition hikes which average 14 percent for the 2003-04 school year and 11 percent for this year.
The increase in funding, while commendable, hardly begins to offset the overwhelming tuition increases students face. However encouraging it would be to consider the decision a mark of progress for a president so neglectful of higher education, most signs point elsewhere. During his first term, policy steps to make the cost of a college education more affordable were for the most part piecemeal in nature and political in departure — rarely indicative of a serious commitment to this nation’s students. With the nation actually facing a real crisis in making tuition affordable, Bush has shed his normal boldness by merely throwing a couple hundred dollars at the nation’s poorest students.
In the meantime, the few students that will benefit from the recent changes can buy a couple extra textbooks and keep on hoping that someday the Bush administration will make higher education a real priority.