When Congress comes back into Washington for a lame duck session following November’s midterm elections, it will have a few noteworthy tasks that it needs to accomplish. As Congressional Quarterly’s Chuck Conlon and Greg Vadala pointed out, one of these is the federal Pell Grant program — which provides higher education grants to middle- and lower-income students — as it is facing a substantial budget shortfall:
President Obama wanted to include extra money for Pell grants in the stopgap legislation that Congress enacted to fund the government until early December, one of many add-ons that were not included in the measure. Republicans mainly opposed Democratic efforts to add funding to the continuing resolution, which kept it relatively “clean”…If the Pell shortfall is not addressed, almost 9 million students would face a cut of more than 15 percent in their fiscal 2011 maximum award, said the Committee for Education Funding.
For the 2011 fiscal year, which theoretically began at the beginning of this month, the Pell Grant program is facing a roughly $5.7 billion shortfall. If it isn’t closed, the maximum grant under the program will be cut by some $845 for the 2011 academic year. And this will come at a time when, due to the lingering effects of the Great Recession, there will be about 8.7 million Pell Grant recipients, up from 7.7 million in 2009.
Of course, Republicans in Congress might very well be unwilling to play ball. After all, their plan for the federal budget, assuming they were willing to actually follow through on it if given the chance, would cut about $9 billion from the Pell Grant program, even in the face of increased demand. And a few Republicans have even advocated for reversing the student loan reform passed this year, resurrecting billions of dollars in senseless subsidies to bankers and further reducing the pot of money available for grants.
Keeping the Pell Grant program fully funded is about more than ensuring adequate access to higher education for lower-income students (though that, by itself, is a worthy goal). America has a falling level of educational attainment in relation to the rest of the world, and by 2025, according to estimates by the Lumina Foundation, the U.S. will be short 16 million college educated workers. So the nation’s supply of human capital and its ability to remain economically competitive with the rest of the world hinges on its ability to encourage a highly-educated workforce. Reducing the supply of Pell Grants would, obviously, have just the opposite effect.