Commentary: Futures Linked – Higher Education and Pell Grants

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In April 2011, I attacked and challenged the GOP ridicule of the Pell Grant program as “harmful” welfare. I was not particularly worried about its livelihood though.

These days, with Congressman Paul Ryan, the architect of the GOP federal budget that hacks at Pell Grants, as the presumptive Republican vice presidential candidate, I am now seriously worried about its livelihood and the future of higher education.

I am worried because an attack on the Pell Grant program is an attack on higher education. It is an attack on the future of my beloved intellectual community.

The presidential campaign has informally debated higher education this week. This debate must continue. In particular, we must resume the national discussion on the Pell Grant program that we had in April 2011.

Our teenagers are about to return to their high schools. Some have already walked into new classrooms. Some tragically decided not to go back and dropped out.

Many of our rising juniors and seniors are wondering if they will be able to attend college. I remember that dismal feeling. A smaller group is wondering whether they will be accepted at their college of choice.

You would think the group wondering about acceptance is not also wondering about attendance. You would think that, if you perform well enough to be accepted to our best colleges and universities, then you would be able to attend. You would think that would be the case in a society that proclaims itself to be a meritocracy, a society that instructs its children that, if you work hard, you will become successful.

You would think so. But that is not so.

In high schools across our nation, students from low-income homes who perform well enough to get accepted into the college of their choice (but not well enough to earn the decreasing number of scholarships) question every year whether they can attend that college. They question whether they can afford to attend college, whether they can haul a mountain of post-graduation debt on their backs.

Unfortunately, college access in America is just as much a product of family wealth as it is student performance. Before the establishment of the Pell Grant program in 1965, it was even worse. Wealth primarily produced access for centuries.

Since the ‘60s, the predominance of wealth over access has subsided as millions of low-income students have used Pell Grants to attend colleges. And higher education has never been better because of it. More than any other period in higher education history, academics in the last 40 years could gloat that they have had the best students in their colleges and universities, not necessarily the richest.

Actually, for some time there in the late 1960s, it appeared that merit and total access were assuming power over class (and race and gender). The Pell Grant ran at the center of this grab for power, and it has been at the heart of the movement for college access ever since.

The proposed GOP federal budget, created by Paul Ryan, cuts the Pell Grant program by a staggering $200 billion and makes Pell spending discretionary (as opposed to mandatory). He says the money does not go to the “truly needy.” His budget cut would potentially slam the door on one million would-be recipients of the program in the next 10 years. That is one million college minds that may not enter college.

Not to mention that cuts in government funds for higher education would also increase, forcing tuition costs up. The maximum Pell Grant during this academic year will be $5,645, which is one-third the average cost of college, the smallest share ever.

The Ryan budget would also allow the interest rate for federally subsidized Stafford loans to double, and it would end student loan interest subsidies for those in school—curtailing the affordability of college for middle-class students as well. Who knows how many middle-class students these changes would keep out of college? Who knows how many would drop out of college in order to work to pay off the interest on their loans?

And these cuts in welfare for the poor and middle class would occur as Ryan and Romney and other Richmen increase the welfare for the wealthy (through cutting their taxes and increasing their corporate subsidies, a positive word for welfare).

If the Ryan budget is instituted, could you imagine our colleges and universities in 20 years? I would be 50 years old in 2032—in the prime of my career as a professor—walking into classrooms that resemble 1932. The top colleges would no longer be reasonably accessible to millions of great American minds, if they are accessible now. The share of the Pell Grant would drop, making it inconsequential as far as access is concerned.

I can see some of my colleagues and I pleading for minds in our classrooms instead of money. Some of the senior professors would reminisce over the days when Pell Grants diversified our campuses and added such an intellectual richness to our class discussions through a greater diversity of perspectives. We would reminisce over the days when our students complained about financial aid offices, and the long, long lines. In 2032, there may be no need for financial aid offices.

That is where higher education could be headed. With Pell Grants on the Republican chopping block, we might be headed back to the future.

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of Africana Studies at University at Albany, SUNY. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972.

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