As Pell Grants Go, So Goeth the Economy

Teri Sibenaller, an English and education major at Northern Illinois University, knows she’s going to be a great teacher someday — but not if conservative lawmakers cut short the college dreams of millions of Americans who rely on federal Pell Grants to pay their tuition.

“It’s taken me 10 years to get where I’m at, and there’s no way I could be as far as I am without the grant assistance,” says Sibenaller, an NEA-Student member who juggles school, a home-operated business, and the duties of caring for her four children, including an 8-year-old with autism. Her associate’s degree under her belt, Sibenaller figures she’s about two semesters away from a college degree and a classroom of her own.

But if the U.S. Senate decides to follow the devastating federal budget, drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and already passed by the House, cutting $5.6 billion from Pell Grants, Sibenaller’s dreams would be destroyed. And it’s not just her — that money is a ticket to the middle class for 9.4 million Americans. This is their passage to home ownership, a share in state and federal taxes, and to the productivity and skills that this country needs to be competitive.

When House members approved those cuts, they proved – once again – that right-wing politicians are waging war on working families in this country, preferring to reward wealthy contributors with tax cuts than invest in proven educational policy. “The sad truth is that this budget proposal is not for the children [or] the working families… It is for the wealthy,” wrote NEA’s director of government relations, Kim Anderson, in a recent letter to House members.

And it doesn’t even make sense.

“It is pennywise and pound-foolish not to support the nearly 10 million Americans who choose to earn their way out of poverty by going to college using a Pell Grant,” agreed NEA’s partners at the Student Aid Alliance. Consider that research shows these students, armed with a college degree and specific job-related skills, are far more likely to earn more money – and pay more taxes. They’re far less likely to be scrambling for unemployment checks.

Isn’t that what this country needs?

Especially in a weak economy?

“NEA members know the best comprehensive, pro-growth economic strategy is to invest in our students and middle class,” Anderson wrote to Senators late last week.

President Obama knows it too. In previous budget battles and recent speeches, he has made it clear that Pell Grants are a priority for him and his economic team. Recently, he pledged not to “sacrifice the core investments that we need to grow and create jobs… We will do what we need to compete, and we will win the future.”

By 2018, the United States will need 22 million new workers with college degrees to meet the burgeoning needs of employers, according to a recent analysis by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. But it likely will fall short by 3 million –  “And that, quite simply, is something we cannot afford,” the authors wrote.

The same study showed clearly that college is the ticket to the middle class. (In 1970, 26 percent of the middle class had gone to college or post-secondary training. By 2007, 61 percent had.)

Specifically, what the House budget would do is cut the maximum award from  $5,550 to $3,040 – a 45 percent cut and the lowest its been since 1998. At the same time, by raising eligibility requirements, it would deny 1.4 million current recipients. (To see how many students would be cut in your state – it ranges from 130,210 in California to 1,348 in Alaska – check out this chart from the House Education and Workforce Committee.)

Kaj Holm, a recent graduate of Parkland College in Illinois and an incoming education major at University of Illinois Champaign, is another Pell Grant recipient. Even with that assistance, he figures he’ll graduate in two years with about $65,000 in loans. Still, it’s an investment in his future, he figures.

“I love every bit of it.”


The Senate will soon vote on a Pell Grant plan. Write to your Senators today, urging them to invest in higher education.