Holding the Line on Pell

Senior Education Department official urges House panel to keep the key student aid program (mostly) whole.
March 16, 2011

Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter was on the defensive Tuesday during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing about funding for the Pell Grant Program, arguing that a House proposal to cut the maximum grant by $845 in its 2011 budget resolution would deter low-income students from going to college.

That cut would be the largest made to the Pell Grant since the 1970s. Kanter also had to answer tough questions from Democrats concerned about the administration's own proposal (in its 2012 budget plan) to stop letting students who want to study year-round qualify for two Pell Grants in a single year.

The back and forth gave new insights into the Department of Education’s rationale for the cuts and revisions it proposed in President Obama’s budget. The department’s ultimate goal is to make up a $20 billion shortfall in Pell to keep the maximum grant at $5,500. The Pell has become ever more popular (and costly) over the last few years, increasing the number of student recipients from 6.2 million in 2008-9 to an estimated 9.4 million in 2011-12, a 52 percent increase.

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a California Democrat, expressed frustration about the elimination of the so-called year-round Pell, which is designed to help full-time students enter the work force more quickly. She wanted to know how this policy made sense in light of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s recent statements that there are 2 million jobs waiting for American workers to fill.

“This is an example of where we had to make a really tough choice because the cost escalated so much and because we knew part-time students could continue their education in the summer,” said Kanter. She cited department research that found only a 1 percent increase in summer school enrollment during the 2010 summer in which the "two Pell" program was in place, compared with the previous year.

Kanter suggested that reforms to the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, such as a $125 million in proposed new money for a “First in the World" competition,” might offer an alternative to the “two Pells” provision as a way to get more students with degrees in hand and out into the work force as fast as possible.

Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis, a Republican, asked Kanter about the possibility of using non-financial incentives to increase college enrollment and retention to combat the enrollment drop Kanter envisioned resulting from the proposed Pell reduction. Kanter replied that mentoring programs, such as the TRIO program, have been set up to do what Lummis described. But, she added, “We know Pell has been an incentive to keep them in.” Kanter said that the Department of Education expects 10,000 students will not enroll in college if the Pell Grant is reduced by the amount proposed in the House budget.

A significant portion of the hearing was spent discussing ways of increasing enrollment in the Pell program. Democrats also wanted to know what could be done to entice more students who are eligible for the funds but do not apply. “We have a lot of programs under way,” Kanter said.


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