Expand, Don’t Cut, Pell Grant Program

The White House is proposing an immediate $18 billion in cuts to a number of government programs, and further belt-tightening next year. Some of the cuts, like the total defunding of the Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund or the $72 million reduction in funds for United Nations peacekeeping efforts, are mainly of concern to particular advocacy groups, like environmentalists or globalists, alone.

Other proposed reductions in allocations, though, have broader implications, like a $1.2 billion cut in funding to the National Institutes of Health, which will affect a broad range of research programs to ensure Americans’ health; or a $200 million reduction in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food assistance program, which helps ensure adequate nutrition for more than half the infants in the country, including many in our community.

Another cut that has the potential of affecting large numbers of Americans, and members of the Orthodox community as well, is the President’s proposal to reduce funding of Pell Grants, the longstanding government subsidy that helps students with financial need afford post-secondary education, by $1.3 billion in the current year — and to cut an additional $3.9 billion from the program in the next year’s budget. Pell grants are available to students in all qualified institutions of higher learning, including yeshivos. A large number of students at yeshivos in fact qualify for Pell Grants, and countless talmidim have benefitted greatly from them over the years.

But presidential budget proposals are only opening positions in what will always be longer discussions and interactions with the Legislature, and therefore while it is a key time for advocacy, it is premature to sound an alarm.

Interestingly, though, during a recent visit to a community college in Florida, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos raised the idea of expanding the scope of the Pell grants program, allowing students to receive tuition assistance year-round, rather than, as is currently the case, just for two semesters in any given year.

Pell Grants have been a mainstay of federal financial aid since the 1970s, helping about eight million low-income students attend post-secondary educational institutions each year. Pell Grants offer qualifying students a maximum annual grant of about $5,800. At present, the program is funded at around $29 billion a year.

The program takes its name from the late Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, who was largely responsible for the creation of “Basic Educational Opportunity Grants” in 1973 to provide financial aid funds to U.S. college students. In recognition of the work Senator Pell put into engineering and promoting the program, the grants were renamed for him several years later.

Pell Grants have traditionally been used to fund a student’s fall and spring semester studies. When the spring semester was over, the student had to reapply for the next academic year, beginning in the fall. With increasing numbers of students choosing to take classes over the summer, though, there are grounds for considering year-round Pell Grants, also known as “summer Pells.” Year-round Pell Grants existed briefly in 2009-2011, but were eliminated mostly due to funding shortages. Now, though, with Secretary DeVos having raised the idea again, new life may have been breathed into the concept.

Historically, Pell Grants have enjoyed support on both sides of the political aisle. Democrats favor the grants because they benefit the poor and middle-class, while Republicans back them because they provide students with the flexibility to study at their own pace and graduate earlier. Last year, Democrats and Republicans joined forces to introduce a bipartisan Senate bill on year-round Pell Grants, but the House blocked it.

Secretary DeVos’ broaching of the idea represents a pivotal moment, and may influence legislators to reconsider summer Pells. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennesee, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, called year-round Pell Grants “one of the most important things” that can be done for higher education students, and has vowed to make extending the program a high priority.

Obviously, extending the scope of Pell Grants to cover summers will entail money, an estimated additional $2 billion per year, and it is unclear where that money would come from, especially given the Trump administration’s determination to slash the funding of so many nonmilitary programs, including Pell Grants.

We call on the members of Congress to, as they have in the past with regard to Pell Grants, move beyond partisanship and beyond whatever negativity some legislators may have expressed about Secretary DeVos, and seriously consider both the importance of maintaining sufficient funding for the program, and the wisdom of expanding it to cover the entire year.