When the U.S. Congress returns from the spring recess May 2, lawmakers will be loading their rhetorical weapons for the next partisan battle: how to reduce the country’s mounting debt. The debate will include, among other things, decisions about which federal programs’ funds should be slashed and by how much. Pell Grants are one program under the threat of the budget axe, which may jeopardize some student’s ability to attend college.
782 students — 13 percent of the College of William and Mary student body — currently receive Pell Grants, according to the Office of Financial Aid.
In the fiscal year 2012 budget plan authored by House Budget Committee Chairman Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which passed the House of Representatives April 15, Pell Grant funding was reduced to 2008 levels, or $16.3 billion. The budget plan also reduces the maximum award per student from $5,550 to $4,705.
“This budget takes the necessary steps to ensure Pell spending is brought under control and targeted to the truly needy instead of being captured in the form of tuition increases,” Ryan’s proposal states.
In contrast, the Obama administration has allocated $41.2 billion for the program in its 2012 budget proposal. President Barack Obama’s budget continues support for a maximum Pell Grant award of $5,550, but eliminates students’ ability to receive two grants in the same year, which means that students who attend classes year-round cannot receive summer aid. It would also eliminate the government subsidy to pay the interest on student loans for graduate students.
With the exception of limiting students to one grant per year, Pell Grants were largely spared in the eleventh-hour budget resolution passed April 8 to fund the federal government through September.
According to a summary of the bill from the House Committee on Appropriations, the federal government will save more than $35 billion over the next 10 years by eliminating students’ ability to draw more than one Pell Grant in the same year.
“We’re going to have to cut that out. It’s a little too expensive,” Obama told reporters during the negotiations. “We want to make sure that we preserve the levels for those young people, or not-so-young people, who are going to school during the year.”
College Director of Financial Aid Ed Irish said that roughly 100 students at the College have taken advantage of Pell aid each summer. The cuts will take effect starting in 2012. Beyond that point, the state of Pell Grant funding remains uncertain, as lawmakers stick to campaign promises to slash federal spending and find a compromise to reign in the nation’s mounting debt.
“Through this effort to cut spending, we bring a sense of responsibility back to Washington, D.C.,” Representative Rob Wittman (R-Va.), who represents the College’s congressional district, said in a statement after voting for the House Republicans’ budget proposal. “Responsible governing means tough choices. No one gets a blank check. Cuts of this magnitude can be hard to swallow, as they will directly impact many Americans, but we must face the reality of what will happen if we do not make these hard decisions.”
A spokeswoman for Wittman did not respond to a request for comment on this article.
While the House Republicans’ budget, as it currently stands, will probably face opposition in the Democrat-controlled Senate, students will nonetheless likely face some belt-tightening.
“It’s too early to get an official read on the impact, but we anticipate that individual Pell recipients might lose up to $2,000 each,” Irish said.
John Kendrick ’12, a Pell Grant recipient, said while the cuts will require him to make more money at the two jobs he works during his time at the College, he believes that cutting federal spending will be more beneficial in the long term.
“Obviously, I’ll have to pay more, but I’m okay with it,” Kendrick said. “My thing is, I feel like the debt is a problem that really affects our generation more than anybody else, so I’m willing to make some sacrifices.”
For other students, the loss of Pell Grant funding could result in some tough choices in the midst of already difficult financial burdens. The College announced new tuition increases starting in the fall of 2011.
Pell Grant recipient Alex Villanueva ’13, who had to delay attending the College for a year in order to help support her family, said she is unsure of what her options will be if her aid is cut and she cannot find a job that can help pay for her tuition.
“I do want to finish out William and Mary, but if the tuition hikes keep going up and the aid keeps going down, it might be a choice between going to college and having a house,” she said.
Villanueva acknowledged that while there are no easy solutions to reducing the national debt, she felt that cuts to student aid are a step too far.
“If we don’t have education, if we don’t have somewhere for people to look to for the future, then what do we have?” Villanueva said.