Today’s diverse panel of student aid advocates and experts didn’t agree on much, but one thing was for certain: Everyone is tired of one-year fixes. The Pell Grant program needs—and deserves—a more long-term solution to its funding woes.
“The whole discussion has become, each year, ‘How do we save the Pell Grant program?’ It would be nice to solve this problem so we can move on and do something bigger and better,” said Steve Burd, senior policy analyst at Education Sector. He moderated today’s panel, which touched on Pell and how it relates to current budget proposals from the Obama administration and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), campus-based aid, and long-term sustainability.
Jason Delisle of the New America Foundation touted Ryan’s budget plan as a means to preserve Pell over the long term. The budget plan proposes to keep the maximum Pell Grant at $5,550 indefinitely, and it does that by reducing eligibility for the awards. For instance, Ryan’s plan calls on Congress to set, for the first time, a maximum income cap for students to qualify for the grants. Delisle said that while there may be disagreements about some of the specific proposals in the plan, the House Budget Committee chairman deserves credit for making “tough choices” to keep the program sustainable. But other panelists disagreed, saying that Ryan’s proposal would gut the program.
“Sustainable for whom?” Jose Cruz of Education Trust asked Delisle. “If you keep it (grant awards) flat, it’s not sustainable for students, I’m sorry.” Cruz, instead, believes that a shorter term solution would buy policymakers time to consider better solutions. Jon Oberg, a pragmatic voice among a sometimes heated panel, reminded his colleagues—and the packed audience of advocates, Education Department employees, Congressional staff, and higher education officials—that policymakers created this dilemma decades ago by focusing almost exclusively on boosting the Pell Grant program, rather than focusing on other student aid programs that require states and colleges to work together with the federal government to help low-income students.
“The idea was that Congress would have several different levers at its disposal for bringing the nation’s efforts to play on these problems. In this discussion, we have neglected that. Instead, we have looked at, ‘What can we cannibalize now?’” he said to a few laughs in the room at Resources for the Future. “Rather than nickel-and-diming all of the programs, including Pell, … we need to look at rejuvenating the campus-based programs and state-based programs to alleviate the disinvestment” in higher education.
Beyond that, Cruz added, the issue is one of misdirection. “States are disinvesting or misdirecting their dollars away from need-based programs, and there’s a similar problem going on at institutional level,” he said, pointing to research that shows that high-income students receive just as much need-based aid as low-income students.
Sarah Flanagan of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, who disagreed with much of Rep. Ryan’s proposal, pointed to College Board data that show that the more selective a private institution is, the higher the percentage of its budget is directed to financial aid. “Very few institutions can put all of their aid toward need; that’s the Holy Grail,” she said.
After prompting from an audience question, Flanagan encouraged all advocates, from both sides of the aisle, to work together to protect student aid programs. Panelists recalled lively student protests on Capitol Hill in the 1990s when Congress considered slashing student aid. Where are those protesters today? The issue has become too divided, Flanagan said. Rather than one issue or united voice for reform, today there are multiple interests who want different things.
“And if we don’t all work together with a big message … we do miss the big question,” she admitted.
If you missed today’s panel discussion, we’ll have video of the event, plus individual commentary from the panelists, on the website soon. We’ll let you know once it’s available.