February 15, 2011

The Value of Pell Grants

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President Barack Obama’s proposed cut of $100 billion in Pell Grants is an unfortunate but necessary balancing act for a bloated federal budget. But a reduction in financial support should not equal a reduction in the Obama administration’s emphasis on higher education — nor in the University’s commitment to financial aid. The University must respond to these cuts with an equally strong push to bolster its financial aid program.

The first of the proposed cuts will have a minimal effect on the undergraduate student body, as the proposal only aims to decrease the “year-round” Pell grant system that helps provide funds for summer study. For graduate students, though, the cuts could have a larger impact, as the federal government will significantly reduce the amount of loans. This second proposal could save the federal government up to $2 billion next year, and $29 billion over the next 10 years. This does not align with a commitment to higher education.

Historically, Obama has shown a laudable effort toward progressing financial aid programs, especially to benefit students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. It was during this administration that the maximum Pell grant award was increased to $5,550, and according to reports, this maximum award will remain even after the cuts. But this recent proposal to cut funding from the Pell Grants is out of step for this administration, and in stark opposition to the core ideals this University was founded on.

Obama and other Democrats are not alone in this proposed policy. A separate budget plan supported by many Republicans in the House of Representatives would reduce Pell Grants by about $845 per student, as well as significantly cut the Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant for low-income students. Students can expect to see drops in their federal financial aid regardless of which plan passes.

The average undergraduate leaves school $19,000 in debt, and in no position to pay for a private university education on the graduate level. Scholarships, grants and even loans are crucial to graduate students’ research. The University has the highest number of Pell Grant recipients in the Ivy League, and Obama’s cuts will likely affect 1,500 to 2,000 Cornell graduate students. If the Pell Grant program takes a hit, the University must step up on behalf of its student body.

The University must work with other concerned colleges to seek out legislators and confer on the pitfalls of potential Pell cuts. By speaking on behalf of those affected by the cuts, the University affirms its commitment to the student body. Graduate students, especially, are the basis of any university’s future; they may serve as the lecturers, professors and researches that help compose a campus community. A University effort to put more endowment funds towards financial aid may help students to see less of an effect from federal cuts that have already affected so many.

Additionally, last semester’s announcement that the University will match the parental contribution and loan levels of admitted students accepted into other Ivy League or “peer” institutions is an open-ended promise that must be affirmed. Rather than focusing on loans, an initiative to increase grants to incoming and current students would do more to make the University competitive amongst its peers, as well as make up any reductions in Pell Grants on behalf of undergraduates. Grants are a far more concrete source of aid for students of all types and need to be a priority.