October 1, 2008

Pell Grant Program Struggles To Match Rising Tuition Rates

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While the federal government continues marathon economic sessions in Washington over the current economic crisis, there are concerns about future funding for government programs. The Bush administration recently warned Congress that $6 billion more would be needed next year to keep up with demands placed on the Pell Grant program — the largest student aid program of the U.S.
Before the current economic crisis, the Pell Grant program was already weakened by yearly grant increases that did not match the rapidly growing tuition rates across the country.
Now, the possibility of less funding may weaken the program more than ever.
The Pell Grant program benefits many schools around the country helping millions of low-income students have the chance to go to college. The program has been especially important to community colleges where over 60 percent of students receive the grant due to large numbers of financially independent students.
But how will this affect Cornell?
Thomas Kean, director for scholarships and policy analysis at the University, estimates the percentage of students receiving the Pell Grant at Cornell to be “right around 13 or 14 percent.” With 13,500 undergraduates, that makes roughly 1,800 students who receive the grant.
“Pell Grants are one of the things that help us meet the higher needs of our students,” Kean said. “ [We receive] in the neighborhood of $5 million a year for the students in the Pell Grant [program.]”
Kean suggested the problem over the next few years will not discontinue the program, but rather plateau the maximum grant awarded.
“Instead of pushing the grant all the way up to the maximum, they will just leave it at the last year’s level,” Kean said, adding that any changes probably would not happen until next year.
Ben Williams ’10 said that while he has received increased funding from the program, the Pell Grant reduces from the money he is given from Cornell.
“I got the Pell Grant every year and the amounts have been increasing, but it doesn’t matter because it just takes away from the Cornell grant, it doesn’t give me any more money,” Williams explained. “I have to work to support myself even with the grants.”
Given the current economy, an increasing number of students are enrolling in institutions of higher education because of the difficult job market. Additionally, due to a lack of employment, many of those applying to graduate or professional programs have lower incomes and are therefore eligible for Pell Grants.
The program is feeling the strain of increased applications. The Information for Financial Aid Professionals reported 8.9 million students submitted Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms in the first half of 2008, up from 7.6 million the previous year.
The next president will have to address funding cuts for the Pell Grant program.
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama wants to keep the program going in pace with both inflation and rising tuition costs, but offers few specifics as to how high he will raise funds.
Republican presidential nominee John McCain supported the 1998 Higher Education Reauthorization Act, which increased student aid. However, he recently called for the examination of federal programs with the intention of making cuts.
While the Pell Grant program may be facing its worst years yet, Keane keeps a positive outlook.
“Markets take time to work. If the government intervenes everyday, then we are not letting the markets work,” Keane said. “Our federal government is a pretty stable and secure organization. When revenues fall short, legislators go back to the books and figure out how do deal with it.”