House reduces maximum award amount for Pell Grant

By Melanie Muller

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Courtesy Crownheights.info

A recent decision by the United States House of Representatives to cut the maximum amount of money awarded to federal Pell Grant recipients has drawn sharp criticism from many in the education community and from local politicians.

On Feb. 22, the House passed H.R.1, the federal budget for the upcoming year, by a vote of 235-189. Among other cuts in the bill the House voted in an amendment to change the maximum award available from the federal Pell Grant Program from $5,500 to $4,705, a decrease of 15.2 percent.

In total, funding for the Department of Education was decreased by $11 billion, or 16 percent. In order to become law, the bill must first go to the Senate; House and Senate bills must be reconciled, and a final version approved by the president.

According to information published by the University of Massachusetts University Relations website, 4,850 UMass students were awarded Pell Grants in the 2009-2010 academic year, a nearly seven percent increase in awards from the previous academic year. In a Chronicle of Higher Education article, the UMass Director of Financial Aid Services Suzanne Peters said, “Last year was probably the biggest increase in appeals that we saw, and I think what we’re seeing now is families are still in crisis, they’re still unemployed.”

President Barack Obama sought to maintain the maximum award for the Pell Grant in the budget originally submitted to congress on Feb.14. This included making cuts to other federal student loan programs and eliminating funding for Pell Grants used to cover summer class expenses. In a statement issued regarding Obama’s original proposal, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators commended the decision to maintain Pell Grant levels, but expressed anxiety that the cuts would impact students negatively.

“Eliminating subsidized Stafford loans for graduate students and two Pell Grants in an award year will undeniably have a negative impact on students, but maintaining funding for the Pell program, which could be facing a $20 billion shortfall in FY 2012, is our highest priority,” said NASFAA President Justin Draeger at the time.

Lindsay McCluskey, the president of the United States Student Association, released a statement condemning the current cuts to the Department of Education, particularly those which impact the Pell Grant.

“A reduction of this magnitude in the Pell Grant means that the House’s continuing resolution will effectively end the college education for many low-income students,” McCluskey said.  “In all, H.R. 1 shows just how little the 112th House of Representatives prioritizes young people and a college education.”

Rep. John Olver of Massachusetts 1st district, which includes Amherst, voted against the amendment to reduce the Pell Grant and against the H.R.1 bill in its entirety.

According to an e-mail from Elizabeth Murphy, Olver’s press secretary, Olver said: “Cutting spending should not mean cutting off a young person’s opportunity for an education. We cannot afford to cut the maximum Pell Grant by 15 percent. If enacted, 136,517 students in the state of Massachusetts will suffer.”

He added, “These cuts unfairly penalize prospective college students in need of financial assistance from pursuing the same education as their wealthier would-be classmates.”

In an e-mail from Whitney Smith, Sen. John Kerry’s press secretary, Kerry said the Pell Grant is too valuable for students to be cut.

“Investments in college opportunity are down payments on our country’s economic and competitive future and nowhere is there a better example than right here in Massachusetts,” said Kerry said in the statement. “Claiborne Pell believed in his gut that a student’s educational future shouldn’t depend on their ability to pay tuition.”

“I don’t want to tell any hard working student that they’re going to get priced out of college because our budget priorities were out of whack,” he continued. “Let’s cut the budget elsewhere and fund the Pell Grants at the maximum amount so we’re not cheating kids out of the chance to go to college.”

Sen. Scott Brown’s office was unable to be reached for comment.

UMass senior Zac Bissonnette, the author of “Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents,” said he was not certain that the Pell Grant Program and other government spending on education actually expanded accessibility.

Bissonnette said the answer to the question of whether the Pell Grant expanded accessibility was a “resounding maybe,” noting that when the Pell Grant program started, low-income students made up a greater portion of the undergraduate population.

“The problem is that increases in federal funding for higher education, in many cases, just provide the opportunity for schools to raise their prices to finance things like, hypothetically, a new luxury gymnasium,” said Bissonnette

UMass professor of economics emeritus Richard Wolff described the cuts to education as both harmful and unnecessary, saying that they will ultimately harm the economy.

“We are now entering in the fourth year of the great recession,” said Wolff. “People are continuing to find it difficult to find work.

He continued, “At a time like this to make it harder for young people to earn credentials is a kind of craziness that makes us look like a hysterical nation to the rest of the world shooting itself in the foot.”

Wolff also said these kinds of cuts are unnecessary and that far better ways of reducing the deficit exist.

“Corporations used to contribute 50 percent more than individuals to the total tax revenue. Now they contribute 25 percent as much as individuals. During the 1950s, the wealthiest 10 percent of individuals contributed 70 to 80 percent of their top bracket earnings to the government,” he said, noting that the fifties were a time of great economic growth.  

Wolff said the tax burden has been distributed on lower classes, which is making deficit more difficult to overcome.

“The highest income earners now only contribute 35 percent of their top bracket earnings. There has been no comparable reduction in taxes for the middle and lower classes,” he said.

While acknowledging that federal educational spending can sometimes be ineffective, Wolff stated that this is not the important issue.

“Rather than quarreling about the effectiveness of a Head Start program, or financial aid programs, and nickel and diming, we need to invest in education. With all the mistakes, spending money on education is a far better and surer investment than spending it on corporations and the wealthy,” Wolff said.

Melanie Muller can be reached at [email protected]