A few weeks after young people stormed to the polls in record numbers and voted 54 percent to 45 percent against George Bush, the Republican-controlled Congress is fulfilling their fears. In voting Saturday, November 20, for a giant spending bill, lawmakers passed a little-noticed but sweeping reduction in federal student aid, one that will lay even more of the responsibility for paying for college on overworked parents and overwhelmed students.
On the chopping block is the Pell Grant, the nation’s largest federal student-aid program, which currently offers needy college students grants of between $400 and $4,050 a year. The grant’s purchasing power has declined steeply in the past 30 years, and it now pays for only a third of tuition at the average public university. Grants, however inadequate, are still the most crucial form of aid, because they don’t need to be paid back.
Studies show that young people from poor and disadvantaged families are reluctant to take on student loans, rightly fearing that they may not be able to complete school and repay the money. Grants, then, are the single most important tool we have to keep the doors of college open to all. But next year, over 90,000 young people, most from families making less than $40,000, stand to lose their Pell grants altogether, and with it their chance at getting a decent education and equal access to the job market.
How can Congress yank funding away from so many kids without a public debate? Simple. The Department of Education is changing the formula for the “Expected Family Contribution,” or EFC, based on income and assets. A higher EFC means a lower aid award. According to its own estimates, the Department of Ed plans to save $300 million next year on Pell grants alone by changing the allowances for state and local taxes. An amendment backed by New Jersey senator Jon Corzine, a Democrat, prevented this rule change last year, but now it’s going to go through. According to The New York Times, a Senate staffer said it was the White House that insisted on the change.
By some estimates, the new formula will eventually reduce financial aid by billions of dollars, because state and institutional aid is also awarded based on some version of the EFC.
This is a harsh blow for the half of all undergraduates who currently receive financial aid, and the three-quarters of students who must work while attending public universities or community colleges. The EFC is already so high that many families, especially those affected by divorce and the layoffs of the 1990s, are unable to meet it. Some students wait until they are 24 and legally considered independent before completing their education, marking the time in low-wage jobs.
These cuts will impact students like Jasmine Donaldson, 21, who grew up in Bakersfield, California. Her mother has a decent middle-class job with that state’s welfare department, yet she and Jasmine’s stepdad are unable to cover both her tuition and her living expenses. To pick up the tab herself, Jasmine has waitressed 40 or more hours a week throughout her schooling. She dreams of transferring from community college next year to finish her bachelor’s degree at Mills, a prestigious private women’s college in Oakland. She won’t be able to do it without aid. “I’m an African American woman studying psychology and dance. Hopefully they’ll slide some money my way,” she says cheerfully. Without a Pell Grant, it would be that much harder. She might be able to borrow more and make up the difference, adding to the $2,000 in credit card debt she has so far accumulated while trying to support herself.
What’s especially galling is that George W. actually bragged on the campaign trail about his administration’s $3 billion in increased spending on Pell grants. And it’s true that more families have qualified for them in the past four years, a reflection of the growth in low-income kids seeking a college education. The message now seems to be that America just can’t afford that kind of progress.
But the hypocrisy doesn’t end there. It’s hard not to see this callous cut in aid as part of a larger Bush administration attack on the young, and by extension, on the principle of opportunity this country was founded on. Bush and his Republican machine have mortgaged young Americans’ futures by running up record deficits, even as he has sent hundreds of us to our deaths in Iraq. Rock the Vote and other youth-vote organizations successfully excited people’s passions before the election by raising questions about a possible draft, enough that Bush was compelled to deny the plan publicly. But with the fires still burning in Falluja, and the drums starting to beat for Iran and North Korea, it’s hard to believe that promise won’t be broken, along with so many others. In Bush’s America, the real opportunity for young people doesn’t wear a cap and gown—it wears a helmet and boots.