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Pell Grants in Jeopardy

Newly proposed budget cuts could pose obstacle to low-income students

When Congress averted a government shutdown by reaching a compromise about the budget for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, it adopted a plan which preserved funding for Pell Grants and kept the maximum amount at $5,550. Congress now must adopt a budget for the 2012 fiscal year, however, and the House passed a budget blueprint Friday which would cut funding for Pell Grants dramatically, returning them to what Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, called "pre-stimulus" levels.

The Department of Education's Pell Grant Program gives thousands of low-income students across the nation the chance to obtain a college education through federally-funded grants. As Congress considers cutting the funds which fuel this program, both students and universities will face new challenges.

A big cut\nThe proposed budget, introduced April 5 by House Republicans, lowers the maximum award of Pell Grants by $550 in the 2012 fiscal year. The proposal also would strike down the current system of Pell award increases which was enacted in 2010.

The maximum Pell Grant award to eligible students is currently $5,550, and students are not required to repay the grant. Students are awarded Pell Grants after demonstrating significant financial need on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form. Students currently are able to obtain two Pell awards per year.

As prospective University students are deciding where to attend next year, many lower-income students must grapple with new challenges because of diminished federal support.

Last Thursday the University's Board of Visitors approved an 8.9 percent tuition increase for all undergraduate students for the 2011-12 school year, adding further financial strain. Next academic year the in-state undergraduate tuition will be $11,576 and the out-of-state undergraduate tuition will be $36,570.

Currently 13.7 percent of University students receive Pell Grant funding, George Stovall, director of Institutional Assessment and Studies, said in an email. More than half of current University students receive some source of aid.

The majority of these students receive aid from multiple sources, including federal loans, institutional grants and grants from outside sources, Stovall said.

More than 8.3 million students received federal Pell Grants nationwide in 2010, with an average award of $3,865.

Waiting game\nShould the federal government slash Pell Grants, the University may be poised to handle the cuts. However, Scott Miller, senior associate director of Student Financial Services, said the current proposal would not affect one major source of aid for low-income University students, AccessUVa - a University program which aims to grant all demonstrated need to undergraduate students.

As the University waits to see what will happen to Pell Grant funding, Miller explained that University leadership will be monitoring the situation to determine the best response.

"If the budget changes going forward, we will be looking at that as an institution," Miller said. "The administration and the budget office will determine the course of action."

The parties debate\nPotential cuts in Pell Grant award amounts are only a part of the proposed spending cuts which have recently been the subject of contentious debate in the federal government, however. In his proposed 2012 budget, President Barack Obama maintained the $5,550 maximum award, while eliminating the second Pell Grant per year.

In an official statement, Congressman Robert Hurt, R-Charlottesville, supported the proposed cuts as a necessary measure to curb government spending.

"I look forward to quickly moving from talking about cutting billions in government spending to talking about cutting trillions in government spending, which we can do by adopting the Republican 2012 budget proposal," Hurt said.

Democrats in the House Budget Committee have argued against the proposed measure, stating in their official response that cuts to Pell funding are "undermining the cornerstone of federal assistance that helps ensure that low-income students have the opportunity to get a college degree."

Hurt said the proposed cuts are part of a larger effort by House Republicans to reduce the national debt, which is currently estimated to be about $14 trillion.

"[The people] want to see an end to business as usual in our nation's Capitol, and they want to see an end to the out of control government spending that threatens the very future of our country and slows our economic recovery," Hurt said.

House Democrats said they believe that in reducing funding to numerous federal programs, "the Republican budget cuts funding in all non-security areas, regardless of the cost to our future."

An easy target\nFunding for Pell Grants, as well as many other education programs, is part of the discretionary spending of the federal budget. Generally it is this type of spending, rather than military or entitlements, which are the subject of cuts in Congress.

"There's a reason Pell Grants are attacked every year," said Isaac Wood, communications director of the University's Center for Politics and former Cavalier Daily opinion columnist. Wood compared the cuts in education to the continued funding for Social Security and other entitlement programs, saying the political influence of those affected by the cuts are a factor.

"Typically you want to avoid attacking a specific constituency, but when you're looking at constituencies, college students don't vote," Wood said. "It's a safer option to take away from college students than senior citizens."

Other options\nAlthough Pell Grants are a popular source of education grants for low-income students, they are not the only option for University students. Miller said the University's financial aid offices examine a number of options when evaluating students, in particular those who demonstrate significant need.

Financial aid officers currently assist students in using federal sources, such as Pell Grants and federal loans, state sources such as the Virginia Guaranteed Assistance Program and institutional sources such as AccessUVa.

"We are going to continue to pull from all three of these," Miller said.

There are also statewide efforts to improve education affordability, which are achieving mixed results.

"In Virginia we have not been doing what we need to fund higher education over the past 10 years," Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, said. "There's a little more in the budget than before but we need to do something with it."

Toscano pointed out one such effort in Gov. Bob McDonnell's "Preparing for the Top Jobs of the 21st Century: The Virginia Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2011." This legislation aims to grant 100,000 degrees within the state throughout the next 15 years.

Toscano said the specifics of the plan are unknown, however, and thus there is still work to be done.

"The only thing that needs to be addressed is how to pay for it," Toscano said. "The dollars have not been proposed yet."

As students across the nation are deciding where to attend college, leaders at the federal, state and institutional levels are trying to find the best way to help students afford an education.

"Tuition is increasing the cost of higher education," Toscano said. "We need to do more to fund it"

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