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.