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It is increasingly clear that one of the possible casualties of the nation's rancorous debt-ceiling debate is the Pell Grant program. The grants, which have helped millions of low-income and moderate-income students attend college over the last few decades, would be reduced significantly if the most strident of Republican budget-cutters have their way. Their victory would be a disservice to many bright young Americans, and a blow to the long-term economic health of the United States.

The cost of Pell Grants has nearly doubled in the last three years. The program was utilized by about 6 million undergraduate college students in 2008-2009 at a cost of about $18 billion. About 9.4 million students will use grants totaling about $35 billion in the 2011-2012 academic year. The latter amount is an attractive target for the number-crunchers, but the measure of the program's value is not in the cost, but in the return individuals and the nation earn on investment.

That, by any measure, is extensive.

Without Pell grants, many bright students from families of limited means could not attend college. The same is true for veterans, who combine the grants which can be used at public, private and for-profit schools and which do not have to be repaid, with GI benefits to help cover higher education and post-secondary school job training costs.

If education is the key to a better job and lives for individuals and families, then Pell Grants serve an admirable purpose. They should be extended at current levels.

The budget cutters, though, say the nation can't afford it. They want to reduce costs by reducing the amount of the grants or by tinkering with eligibility rules. Doing so would be calamitous for the third or more of Pell recipients who then could afford to pursue higher education if the amount of their grants was reduced or if income levels and other qualification rules were made more stringent.

Legislators should work diligently to find ways to make higher education more rather than less available to worthy students. That's especially true now, when economic conditions make it difficult for many more families to underwrite the cost of higher education on their own. Pell Grants (and other programs) that remedy that problem are too valuable to fall victim to the rhetoric of those who argue that any program, regardless of its utility, is a fair target if eliminating or cutting its funding directly impacts the nation's the nation's bottom line.

The Pell Grant debate deserves widespread attention and public engagement. The grants impact students in every corner of the United States. Don't believe it? Consider this: About a third of undergraduates at both the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga receive Pell Grants. Those considering emasculating the program should remember them and the millions of others like them before taking action that could irrevocably alter the present and future lives of so many students.

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