After Senate Republicans last week refused to support an omnibus spending bill designed to meet their specific parameters, Senate Democrats are scrambling to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government through March 4. As I noted yesterday, there are some worrying aspects about the CR, including that it doesn’t provide funding to implement the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.
However, Democrats did see fit to use the CR to address an important and pressing problem: covering the $5.7 billion shortfall in the Pell Grant program (which provides college tuition funding to low- and moderate-income students). Due to unexpected demand in the wake of the Great Recession, the program needed a funding fix to prevent grant cuts in 2011. Some House Republicans, however, are displeased that the extra funding was included:
House Appropriations Committee ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) decried the inclusion of $5.7 billion for the Pell Grant program, which will incur a shortage without additional funding, calling it “a perennial priority of the House Democrat leadership and Appropriations Committee Chairman [David] Obey [D-Wis.]“…The “Democrat majority will cap off the year with yet another massive spending bill that will force our nation into further deficits and debt,” Lewis said in a statement.
Incoming House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) emphasized that he intends to cut all federal discretionary spending back to the 2008 level, which would entail significant Pell Grant reductions. Simply allowing the shortfall to persist would reduce grants for 9 million students, with the maximum grant cut by $845.
While the House GOP derides Pell Grants as a “perennial priority of House Democrats,” the program is integral to both ensuring access to higher education for disadvantaged populations and boosting the country’s economic competitiveness. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Pell recipients largely come from traditionally underserved communities, and are “more likely to be female and first-generation college students, and less likely to be white than those who don’t receive the grants.”
Meanwhile, rising tuition is posing an ever-growing problem for higher education students. According to the Pew Research Center, students in 2008 borrowed 50 percent more to finance their education that students in 1996; the average loan amount for a bachelor’s degree recipient is currently about $23,000.
America is now 12th worldwide in percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds with a college degree, trailing, among others, Russia, New Zealand, South Korea, Ireland, and Israel. By 2025, according to estimates by the Lumina Foundation, our nation will be short 16 million college-educated workers, a shortfall which Pell Grants can help to address. But House Republicans seem more eager to cut tuition assistance than work to ensure that America has an economically competitive workforce in the future.