Bush pledges to increase Pell Grants

One of the major themes at the top of President George W. Bush’s second-term education agenda is overhauling federal aid for college students.

In his recent State of the Union Address, Bush pledged to make significant changes to the funding of Pell Grants.

“To make our economy stronger and more dynamic, we must prepare a rising generation to fill the jobs of the 21st century… and we will make it easier for Americans to afford a college education, by increasing the size of Pell Grants,” Bush said during the Feb.2 speech.

The Department of Education defines Pell Grants, which are the government’s largest form of financial aid, as grants aimed at helping low-income students afford college. The grants usually range from $400 to $4,050, depending on the financial need of students, their cost to attend school and whether they are enrolled as part-time or full-time students.

Efeosa Obakpolor, a second-year pharmacy student, said she was once a Pell Grant recipient.

“I qualified for the Pell Grant last year but could not qualify for it this year because my mother is now earning more money,” said the 18-year-old from Jacksonville by way of Nigeria.

Obakpolor said the Pell Grant made it easier for her to pay for college and still have enough money leftover for living expenses.

“Hopefully the changes to the Pell Grant system will help those that need the money most. Now that I don’t qualify for the Pell, I have been forced to take out a loan for all of my essential expenses.”

Bush’s plan to increase the maximum Pell Grant for students and to end the program’s $4.3 billion deficit would require major spending cuts in the student loan program. The administration said it can save that money by reducing payments to lenders. Although Congress did not raise the maximum grant last year, lawmakers did increase Pell Grant money by $458 million, to about $12.4 billion. However, Congress also decided not to stop the Department of Education from updating the tax deduction tables it uses to calculate aid eligibility.

If the department uses the newly updated tables, it would cause about 1 million prospective Pell Grant recipients to have their eligibility reduced by an average of $300, according to Brian Fitzgerald, staff director of the Advisory Committee on Financial Assistance, which advises Congress. Fitzgerald said the update would save the program about $300 million a year.

Ultimately, by passing Bush’s new budget the U.S. government would end up spending almost $18 billion on Pell Grants to help students that meet the criteria attend college, an increase of 45 percent, if Congress passes Bush’s proposed budget. There would then be an increase in the maximum Pell Grant award of $100 each year for the next five years, to a total of $4,550.

However, some college officials have expressed their concerns about other aspects of the president’s budget, including changes in student loan policies and cuts to federal TRIO programs that support students.

“I am not surprised that the Bush administration is looking at all the federal programs, especially those that benefit minorities and other underrepresented groups, in order to make budget cuts,” said Ruth Sanders, the University Honors Program coordinator.

“Anytime you have programs that benefit minorities and low income families those are the programs that usually get cut when the government is in a budget crunch. So we will have to be extremely frugal with our funds and make every penny count because the money we need to run important Title III and Trio educational programs might not be available in another year.”

About one-third of the government programs subject to elimination in Bush’s budget are in the Department of Education, including federal grant programs for local schools in such areas as vocational education, anti-drug efforts and Even Start, a $225 million literacy program

Contact Malcolm Glover at malcolm2001g@yahoo.com.