Senators Say They’re Fighting to Protect Pell Grant Program - Higher Education
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Senators Say They’re Fighting to Protect Pell Grant Program

by Jennifer McDermott, Associated Press

WARWICK, R.I. — Rhode Island’s two Democratic U.S. senators said on Monday that they’re fighting to protect and expand the student financial aid program named for their predecessor Claiborne Pell.

Pell Grants have been a fixture of federal financial aid since the 1970s, helping millions of low-income students attend college annually. Claiborne Pell, a former Democratic senator who died in 2009, was a key champion.

Sen. Jack Reed said that as someone who worked with Pell in Congress he feels this is something that “makes so much sense.”

“It’s the manifestation of an attitude that when we help people go to school, we’re helping them but we’re helping ourselves too,” Reed said. “Their productivity and their contribution to the economy and our society will benefit all.”

Republican President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal 2018 would take $3.9 billion in surplus funding out of the Pell Grant program and reallocate it and does not support an ongoing inflation adjustment, Reed’s office says.

Reed and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse spoke with two dozen education officials about college affordability in Warwick at the Community College of Rhode Island, where about two-thirds of students are eligible for Pell Grants. Attendees told the senators they’re worried about the potential cuts.

Whitehouse reassured them, “The budget is disconcerting because it’s so extreme and ill-advised, but it’s not getting much traction.”

Trump’s $4.1 trillion budget proposal generally makes deep cuts in safety net programs, including Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Social Security’s disability program. The White House has said its budget would put the country back on track for a healthy economy.

Reed and Whitehouse sponsored legislation to expand the Pell Grant program, which is funded at around $29 billion annually.

In Hartford, Connecticut, Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney also hosted an event Monday to draw attention to proposed cuts in education funding. He said the Trump budget fails middle-class families by phasing out the program that subsidizes interest on Stafford Loans while students are in school.

“I think the more people understand about what this budget would do, especially for middle-class priorities like college, there’s going to be ferocious blowback,” Courtney said.

Laufton Ascencao attended the meeting with Reed and Whitehouse on behalf of the Young Democrats of Rhode Island. The 26-year-old told them he couldn’t have gone to college without a Pell Grant.

“If we don’t invest in this now, we’re building a whole generation who’s not capable of working in the economy we’re developing,” said Ascencao, of Bristol. “It’s absurd.”

The maximum Pell Grant is nearly $6,000, which Reed and Whitehouse are trying to increase by $500 and grow over time by permanently indexing it to inflation. Their bill would extend eligibility to young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and are in the country illegally and would allow the grants to be used for some short-term job training programs.

Courtney is working with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, to allow graduates with high-interest student loans to refinance.

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