Cuts that Could Hurt in Higher Ed

June 24, 1991

On the face of it, the Bush administration plan to boost federal college tuition grants to the financially worst-off students and eliminate them for the more affluent sounds like a good thing. Then the reality of a cutoff point of $10,000 a year in family earnings sets in, an income level so low it chokes off the ability of even working-class families to send their children to college.

The Pell grants, named after Rhode Island Sen. Claiborne Pell, annually provide $5.3 billion in aid to 3.4 million college students, most of them from families earning $35,000 a year or less, as part of an $11.6 billion federal program of grants and loans to 6 million students attending 8,500 institutions. Under the administration's proposed rewrite of the Higher Education Act, nearly 12 percent of the lower-income students would be rendered ineligible to receive the grants, while those eligible would see their maximum awards rise by 54 percent, to $3,700 a year.

What is wrong with this picture? First, the plan ignores the steady upcurve of college expenses over the last decade. College tuition has risen 135 percent since 1980, while average family income rose only 67 percent. So those families earning $35,000 or less, already strapped to keep their offspring in college, would find the going that much harder.

The Bush administration's answer, apparently, is that the 300,000 or so students dropped from the grant roster should take out more loans, or, alternately, attend less-expensive state and community colleges. Perhaps they haven't been paying attention to the outcry over rises in state-college tuition lately. Moreover, while community college programs present fine choices for many students, those seeking four-year degrees should not have their opportunities narrowed by federal policy.

America's route to economic competitiveness in the next century is paved with improved education. More than half of all existing jobs in the U.S. will require upgraded skills in the decade and more than three-quarters of all new jobs will require post-high-school education. Against that backdrop, cutting subsidies to the students who are to provide the brainpower is just counter-productive. The "education president" ought to know that the students, middle income as well as the poorest, need more help, not less.

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