Decades ago, U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell eloquently stated, “The strength of the United States is not the gold in Fort Knox or the weapons of mass destruction we have, but the sum total of the education and character of our people.”
Shortly thereafter, Pell backed up his statement by sponsoring legislation to provide grants to low-income students who wished to enroll in college, thus rapidly increasing the percentage of young adults with a college education. It can be argued that the related growth in college-educated Americans supported our increased economic vitality as a nation over these past five decades. We are a better nation when our young adults are prepared to lead industry, education, nonprofits and civic organizations.
Since that statement, nearly 60 million students have received a Pell Grant, with more than 9 million currently receiving it. Created in 1965 as the Basic Education Opportunity Grant, the Pell program has become the symbolic center of our collective commitment to afford access to students desiring a higher education degree. The Pell Grant aims to include all capable students, providing social and economic mobility to those willing to work toward a degree and a career. The Pell Grant is an opposite to other initiatives that increasingly are supportive of students who have more financial resources, such as education tax credits and merit-based financial aid.
At most universities, a Pell Grant covers approximately 20 percent of tuition and fees that are charged to students after institutional scholarships are awarded. The remainder is paid by students and their families, state assistance, loans and scholarships established by generous private donors. At Misericordia University, approximately two-thirds of our students arrive with financial need that will not be met by the student or family. Institutions such as Misericordia typically enroll students who receive slightly more than 10 percent of their financial aid from the federal government. Add in a little less than 10 percent from state support, and the remainder of financial aid is then provided by the institution through an array of grants and scholarships. We provide on-campus jobs to approximately 9 percent of our first-year students, and nearly one-third work off campus during the academic year. Approximately 68 percent of our senior students report they work off-campus during the academic year. While it is reassuring to see so many students working in support of their education, we need to remember that the time needed for a rigorous, full-time academic program leaves limited time for outside work possibilities. Congress is now working through its upcoming budget, and support for higher education is one of the many topics under review. Thankfully, the House Appropriations Committee has proposed a modest increase in Pell Grant funding that will be available for students to use at any accredited higher education institution. The Pell Grant travels with the student, linking it to the potential future workforce as students choose both institution and courses of study.
Unfortunately, another recent congressional proposal would cap the number of Pell Grant recipients, effectively limiting the number of students who can attain a degree and then repay it with a lifetime of career earnings. A second proposal would make Pell subject to annual appropriations, removing its mandatory inclusion in the budget. That proposal would raise the possibility of cutting Pell support by more than 15 percent per student according to the advocacy group Committee for Education Funding.
Yet another proposal may reduce the benefit amount for each participant by redefining the portion of income that is needed for basic living expenses. For example, a recent proposition would include public benefits as family income in the calculation of Pell Grant eligibility. It seems contrary to a mission of access and inclusiveness to count WIC or food stamp support as income that could be used to support higher education. If a potential student does not have enough money to buy food, it seems logical they are unlikely to be able to find the funds to pay for college.
Food and higher education are not offsetting choices and should not be put in opposition as part of a federal budget process.
Coupled with proposals to increase interest on student loans, these changes could lock students with lower financial resources out of higher education. That’s not only wrong for those students but also wrong for our nation. Our students are our future, and we need to continue to support them as they learn to succeed.
Thomas J. Botzman, Ph.D., is president of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., the oldest four-year institution of higher education in Luzerne County.