Helping more Mainers attain college or other post-secondary education is essential for the state’s economic future. Most state policy leaders understand this, and many are working on various fronts to ensure that more than the current 34 percent complete an associate or bachelor’s degree. But a move in Congress would undermine those efforts.
The current Republican budget proposal, crafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., would reduce the federal Pell Grant program. Pell Grants are awarded to low-income students.
More than 32,000 Maine students are expected to receive Pell Grants in the 2012-13 school year, the period in which the proposed cuts would take effect. Currently, the average Pell Grant award for those Maine students is $3,760. If the cuts are maintained in the final budget, more than 5,000 students will not be eligible for the grants, and the average grant will drop to less than $2,000.
According to data from the advocacy group Education Trust, “after exhausting all sources of grant aid, the typical low-income student must come up with more than $11,000 a year to attend a public or private nonprofit college.” This means low-income families often must borrow an amount equivalent to nearly three-quarters of family income for just one child to attend a four-year college.
By contrast, middle-class students typically finance the equivalent of 27 percent of family income, while high-income students finance just 14 percent of their family income, according to Education Trust.
Pell Grants were created in 1965 to assist lower-income and middle-income students. The program was whittled down in President George W. Bush’s budget proposals and continues to be seen by the GOP as a target for spending cuts, though Maine’s Republican senators have supported the program.
Republicans in Congress are focusing on reducing federal spending as a means of reining in the deficit. This is certainly a worthy goal. But budget writers are given choices. When they choose between funding one program over another, they should consider long-term merits. By this measure, Pell Grants should see an increase in funding, since the more people who complete post-secondary education the better our economy will fare in the competitive global marketplace. At the very least, cuts to the program must not stand.