Seven students and activists were arrested Wednesday for interrupting a Senate budget hearing to protest Congressional Republicans’ new plan to cut $150 billion from higher education spending, including $90 billion from the federal Pell Grant program.
The demonstrators, members of the U.S. Student Association, chanted “No cuts, no fees, education should be free” while circling the room. The hearing was held the same day the Republican-led Senate unveiled its new budget that includes a ten-year freeze on the Pell Grant program, which helps cover college tuition costs for low-income Americans. U.S. Capitol Police quickly shut down the protest and escorted the activists out of the room as the chairman announced the committee would recess until police could restore order.
“We wanted to draw attention to the massive, monstrous cuts that the Republicans are proposing to primarily the Pell program, subsidized loans, public service loan forgiveness and income-based repayment,” Maxwell John Love, the president of USSA, told ThinkProgress.
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The seven people arrested — staff members, students and supporters — were eventually released from jail late Wednesday night, Love said.
During the hearing, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) spoke out against Senate budget plan that would freeze Pell Grants and extensively scale back other higher education programs. Sanders has also condemned the House Republicans’ budget blueprint, released one day earlier, that says freezing the program at the current amount “makes the Pell Grant program permanently sustainable.”
Pell Grants provide low-income students with money for college that does not have to be repaid. Almost two-thirds of African American college students and just over half of Latino students receive Pell Grants currently, according to the Education Trust. President Obama has expanded the program over the last few years, but House Republicans want to hold the grants at $5,775 per year for the next ten years. Senate Republicans also proposed ending the guarantee of funding for Pell Grants, which would allow Congress to decide if they want to fund it each year.
Republicans have repeatedly targeted the Pell program, including as recently as last December when Congress cut $303 million in spending as part of its massive cromnibus budget deal. The cuts were intended to make up a shortfall in what Congress budgeted to pay the companies that collect student loan debts on the government’s behalf. Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) 2012 budget proposed even steeper cuts that would have kicked 1 million students off Pell Grants. And in 2011, after Republicans had been pushing for months to slash the program, the deal to avert the government shutdown included a provision which made as many as 100,000 of its 9 million recipients ineligible for Pell Grants.
Nine million students received aid through the Pell program during the 2013–2014 school year, amounting to $33.7 billion. Most Pell recipients need to take out other loans, as well, since the grant has failed to keep up with the cost of tuition. Pell awards that once covered 77 percent of tuition at a four-year public university in 1980 covered just 36 percent of the same degree in 2011. While the Pell program is currently operating at a surplus, it is projected to fall into deficit by 2017 even without the massive cuts.
Repeated cuts and holds on funding to the program will only worsen the ballooning student debt crisis, as students will likely be forced to turn to banks for loans with interest if they lose access to Pell grants. Student activists also say any cuts could create a funding shortfall as soon as this fall.
“We’re trying to push solutions that we think would allow people in this country to have access to education, so it makes it really hard when there are cuts to be able to propose a positive vision,” Love said. “$150 billion over ten years is just too much for students to stomach.”