Greg Zaiser is Elon University’s vice president for admissions and financial planning.
In this essay, he says proposed changes to the federal Pell Grant program hurt students.
By Greg Zaiser
Ten years ago, George W. Bush was president, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the Palm Treo 650 was the hot new cell phone and a loaf of bread cost $1.05.
It’s hard to predict what life will be like a decade from now, but one thing is certain – there will be a much greater need for financial aid to make college affordable for millions of young people. So it’s especially troubling that Congress is considering freezing Pell Grants at the current level until 2025.
Lawmakers know that college will be more expensive, so freezing the Pell program is equivalent to phasing out the federal investment in educating tomorrow’s productive citizens. This would put America at a serious disadvantage in a time when other nations are expanding educational opportunities to be competitive in the global economy.
In addition to changes in Pell Grants, Congress is also considering making student loans much more expensive by charging students thousands of dollars in interest while they are still in school. The goal is to reduce the burden on taxpayers. But student financial aid makes up only about 1 percent of the federal budget, and the impact of these budget cuts on higher education and our nation would be profound.
It’s important to understand why Pell Grants are vitally important. The federal college grant and loan programs were established 50 years ago in the landmark Higher Education Act. Our nation believed that all qualified students should be able to go to college, regardless of their financial means, and the federal programs provided basic funding for millions of lower-income students.
Today the maximum Pell Grant is $5,775, a level that provides core financial support for undergraduate students who have the greatest financial need. Nearly 75 percent of Pell Grant recipients have a family income of $30,000 or less.
Last year, more than 9 million students received Pell Grants, a 78 percent increase since 2003, which has driven up the total program cost. Rather than celebrating the benefits of higher participation and improved college access, Congress is focused on reducing the cost.
But while Washington argues the merits of student aid, those of us in higher education see the impact of this crucial funding in a very real and personal way. Students of modest means come to us with dreams and aspirations and they understand that a college degree is vital to their future.
We work with students and their families who are trying to piece together a puzzle of personal savings, loans, work earnings, scholarships, and federal grants to fund their college education. Pell Grants form the cornerstone for students with the greatest financial need. We work to find a way to make each student’s financial puzzle work, but the financial picture is becoming more difficult every year. Despite our best efforts, the numbers don’t always add up, and some students who desperately want to stay in school must set their dreams aside.
Understanding the historic nature of these proposed Pell Grant changes, students across the nation are mounting the #SaveStudentAid campaign. In addition, 77 higher education associations have formed the Student Aid Alliance to work to preserve the federal programs.
Colleges will continue to promote financial aid for every deserving young person. But we ask you to let your representatives in Washington that you support students. This is a decision point for our nation – our chance to continue the support for higher education that was established 50 years ago. The leaders of that generation understood the power of education to shape our nation’s future. They understood that a highly educated population is the engine for economic growth.
Reducing our commitment to higher education should not be an option.