HHS Should Take Custody of Pell Grant Recipients

The health and welfare of low-income college students is a national emergency, Wick Sloane argues, which is why Secretary Burwell and her agency should take responsibility for them.

October 3, 2016

The Honorable Sylvia Mathews Burwell
Secretary of Health and Human Services
Hubert H. Humphrey Building
200 Independence Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20201

Madam Secretary:

If I told you that 4.5 million U.S. citizens are going to die based on current U.S. policies, would I have your attention? Why are we, the people, settling for this plague of perpetual underemployment in the wealthiest country in the world? You and I could fix this.

Do I mean “dead” in a graveyard? No. I mean death of soul and spirit, from the guaranteed impoverished life that’s sure to come to students entering the world without the proper inoculations of education.

You’ve never heard of me, Secretary Burwell. I know the prospect of your agency seizing custody of the nine million students on Pell Grants is an idea from beyond left field. Bear with me? In higher education, we continue to fail these students. Virtually everyone I’ve heard predicts that no more than half of these nine million students will complete their certificate or degree. Secretary Burwell, we don’t even know which half.

For 10 years, I have worked with students like these at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. What can professors do with students facing hunger, trauma, stress, depression, exhaustion, homelessness? These are health issues, not solved with teaching or time in a library. This is why all funding for these students must be at HHS, not the Department of Education.

Why am I writing you? I’ll explain for staffers screening your mail. Your Rhodes Scholarship is a good start. You have a broad vision for HHS. And you saw the hopeless plight of these students and their families while you led the Walmart Foundation and worked at the Gates Foundation. You’ve been head of the federal Office of Management and Budget. You know where the money is.

The HHS seizure idea clobbered me looking at the web page of HHS’s Centers for Disease Control and its motto: “CDC 24-7: Saving Lives, Protecting People.” That’s my point. Saving the lives of these students is a 24-7 job, not just five or six hours a day in school. When howling about low completion rates for low-income students, higher education leaders show almost no interest in the hours outside of school.

One reason why: what I propose we do is high risk and difficult. Neither of us would expect saving 4.5 million lives to be easy.

But why HHS? This will be a near-impossible grab. Why you? You, a former OMB director, won’t blink. Let’s look at what the numbers for are agreed-upon national crises. As a nation, we are paralyzed by gun violence. The CDC reports 11,209 firearm homicides in 2013. If that’s a crisis -- as it should be -- what about at least 4.5 million students dying of poverty?

If I have your attention, I’ll pull back from left field. From the wealthiest nation on earth, join me in declaring that millions of deaths of the human spirit in the U.S. is a full-bore World Health Organization Public Health Emergency of International Concern. “Health” in the richest nation on the world requires a broader definition, reflecting the resources the U.S. in the 21st century can bring to a problem.

Why is our national concern for these suffering students so low? Look again at other numbers that set off alarms in public health. With the 42,773 cases reported by the CDC in 2014, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death for people older than 16. Even the leading cause of death, heart disease, was “just” 614,348 deaths. Secretary Burwell, 4.5 million spirits are dying, too often young.

What exactly do I propose we do? To your motto: “CDC 24-7: Saving Lives, Protecting People.”

We will give each student an education-readiness diagnosis of all 24-7 of their lives. Enough to eat? Healthy? Enough sleep? Safe place to sleep? Status of their family and dependents. Money in the bank. A realistic assessment of hours to work for pay and basic living expenses, versus hours available for success in an academic or training program.

At the top of my list is a trauma assessment -- recent experience with wars, prison, shootings, sexual assault, domestic violence, hunger, homelessness. We’ll have regular checkups at the start, middle and end of each semester.

Without addressing these issues first, how can we ask students to walk into a classroom to learn?

We’ll need some tests, metrics, Secretary Burwell, to develop standards for 1.0 readiness. You know from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation's Global Burden of Disease report the concept of years of productive lives lost to people suffering from depression and back pain. What’s the lifelong impact of loss of education due to, say, hunger? The standard of 1.0 readiness could be nourished and rested with all necessary inoculations.

Is a student, as mine have been, here after two years in prison in Eritrea 0.50 ready versus, say, 0.75 for a student raped in Mattapan versus I-don’t-know-what for a student living in his car now? These are real examples, Secretary Burwell, students who have been to my windowless basement office, trying to complete their basic education.

Many, still, will not agree with my public-health model for education. Let’s try another metaphor.

Clean water. Students, all ages, are generally not in school longer than seven hours a day, at most five days a week. That’s 35 hours max in school during a 168-hour week. What if these children, these students, had access to clean water for only these few hours? The outcome? Dysentery, perpetual diarrhea at the least. Is 35 hours in school enough for a basic, entry-level 21st-century job?

If millions of U.S. students had dysentery, the CDC would be on that in a minute. But stress? Hunger? Trauma? Lack of sleep? Depression? All adding up to insufficient employable skills? No alarms I can hear.

So, seize custody of the nine million low-income college students on Pell Grants, Secretary Burwell, along with the funds for them now allocated to the Department of Education, of course. We’ll fund the rest with taxing private-college endowments on a sliding scale, with the lowest tax rates for colleges with the most students on Pell Grants.

You can do it. Quick. Everyone is panicking about November. No one is looking.


Wick Sloane


Wick Sloane is an end user of a most highly selective higher education. Follow him on Twitter @WickSloane.


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