House Bill Threatens Pell Grants For More Than Half A Million Low-Income Students

Everything we know about the job market tells us that a college degree is a passport to employment that provides a decent wage, plus benefits like paid leave, health insurance and a retirement plan.

Doesn’t mean that everyone with a college degree will get a job like that. Does, however, mean that most without one won’t.

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce reports that 62% of all jobs will require at least some college education by 2018. We’ll need 22 million new college degrees, it says, but will fall short by at least 3 million.

So if we care about reducing dependence on public benefits, raising more revenues, growing our economy and keeping it globally competitive, then helping qualified low-income people to get a college education is one of the smartest things we can do.

House Republicans say they care about all the aforementioned. Yet they’ve proposed changes in Pell grants that would deny aid to a vast number of low-income students.

Briefly, their Fiscal Year 2012 appropriations bill for Labor, Health and Human Services and Education would:

  • Deny Pell grants to students attending college less than half time.
  • Reduce the lifetime eligibility period from 18 to 12 semesters — even for current recipients who are just a semester or so away from graduation.
  • Count, for purposes of determining eligibility and grant amounts, public benefits like food stamps, refundable tax credits like the EITC and the untaxed portion of Social Security benefits, including those received by surviving spouses and children.
  • Reduce the family income threshold for expected contributions to college costs from $32,000 to $15,000 — barely above the poverty line for a two-person family.
  • Roll back income protection allowances, i.e., the amount of income for basic living expenses that’s shielded from expected cost contributions.
  • Deny eligibility to students without a high school diploma or GED, even though some community colleges admit them.

The U.S. Department of Education reportedly estimates next year’s grant losses at 550,000. The number will increase to more than a million by 2017, it says.

Hardest hit will be low-income students who need to work to support themselves and their families and those who are poor enough to qualify for public benefits.

Others in this category are students who need remedial and/or English as a Second Language classes to succeed in regular college courses.

Also, of course, students who could earn a degree or certificate without first going back to high school or spending the time (and money) to get a GED.

Needless to say, these groups aren’t mutually exclusive.

The Save Pell coalition reports that Pell grants already cover only a third of college costs. Low-income students thus have to work to make up the difference and/or take out loans.

Many may decide to drop out or never enroll rather than graduate with significant debt — an average of $25,250, plus interest for last year’s graduating seniors. Maybe considerably more for graduates from for-profit colleges.

And what about the 53% or so of Pell grant recipients who work? They get caught in a Catch-22.

If they’re working a considerable number of hours, they get dropped from the program because they can’t meet the new half-time requirement or have already exceeded the lifetime limit.

If they can still get a grant, they’re likely to get less because of the changes in the income that’s counted and the amount that’s protected.

Well, they can’t work more hours to make up the difference. So we’re back again to the matter of loans and their effects on enrollment and completion.

The proposed changes are, as CLASP says, “perverse.”

They’ll undermine the efforts of low-income students to get the education and skills they need to qualify for living wage jobs in our evolving economy.

They’ll deprive the economy of the energies and gifts of many millions of willing workers.

They’ll perpetuate the cycle of poverty, as these thwarted workers struggle to raise children without the wherewithal to provide for their needs.

This from a crew whose Majority Leader says that “no matter who you are or where you’re from, all of us should have access to the opportunity to earn the success that we’re after.”

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