Republican budget proposal seeks to freeze Pell Grant

The Republican House budget proposal for the 2016 fiscal year, which would freeze the Pell Grant at its current maximum amount, has stirred outrage among many college students across the country. Photo By: Gage Skidmore
The Republican House budget proposal for the 2016 fiscal year, which would freeze the Pell Grant at its current maximum amount, has stirred outrage among many college students across the country. Photo By: Gage Skidmore
The Republican House budget proposal for the 2016 fiscal year, which would freeze the Pell Grant at its current maximum amount, has stirred outrage among many college students across the country. Photo By: Gage Skidmore

This week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) will begin an advertising campaign targeting 15 Republican members of the House of Representatives who have voted for the recent House Republican budget proposal, which would freeze funds to the Pell Grant award for 10 years.

The DCCC plans to carry out these attacks by placing advertisements in collegiate newspapers within the districts of the targeted congressmen and congresswomen, attacking them for refusing to show support for Pell Grants.

The Pell Grant, named for Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell, who spearheaded its creation under the Higher Education Act of 1965, provides undergraduate students with federally sponsored financial aid. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, it is the largest federal grant program available to undergraduate students, awarding almost 10 million students with debt-free financial aid annually. (The Minnesota Office of Higher Education, “Paying for College,” 2014)

The recently proposed House Republican budget resolution for the 2015-2016 fiscal year, entitled “A Balanced Budget for a Stronger America,” in addition to repealing the Affordable Care Act and cutting other social safety net programs, would freeze funding to Pell Grants at their current maximum award amount, $5,775, for the next 10 years.

The House’s recent budget report read, “After multiple increases to Pell Grant award levels, the program is now facing a shortfall. In the past, lawmakers have dealt with the problem with short-term funding patches. Our budget rejects these temporary measures and makes the Pell Grant program permanently sustainable so that it is able to serve students today and in the future,” (House of Representatives Committee on the Budget, “A Balanced Budget for a Stronger America.”)

This proposal comes in the wake of last year’s attempt to do similarly. “[Congress is] demanding Washington live within its means,” remarked House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA), the overseer of this year’s plan. (The Washington Post, “GOP budget plan has a surprise among list of cuts for federal employees,” 03.29.15)

Despite assertions that the plan rightly addresses an imminent funding shortfall in the 2016 fiscal year, the DCCC’s upcoming attacks have garnered strong support from left-leaning student organizations, like the College Democrats of New York (CDNY), who commended the campaign in a recent press release.

The DCCC’s advertisements in New York will target Rep. John Katko of the 24th congressional district, where Syracuse University is, and Rep. Lee Zeldin of the 1st congressional district, where the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook is.

According to a CDNY press release, although last year SUNY Stony Brook’s in-state tuition costed $4,215 and its out-of-state tuition costed $10,925, which themselves do not include the additional costs of housing, meal plans, academic supplies and other basic living supplies, the school’s average Pell Grant was only about $3,000.

CDNY Vice President and senior at SUNY Stony Brook Kevin Gomez commented, “Personally, I wouldn’t be able to afford to attend Stony Brook without the Pell Grant. I have taken out the max amount of loans that the government has allowed and I still have to pay out of pocket on top of that. I work shifts at a restaurant to pay for those costs. This is at a public school where tuition is supposed to be affordable; I can only imagine the cost incurred by students at private universities.”

Although the DCCC advertisements in New York will be aimed specifically at Katko and Zeldin, the CDNY has encouraged criticism of any New Yorkers in Congress who have opposed Pell Grants. “Every year, tuition at universities around New York rise, and a Pell Grant freeze would hurt every student,” the CDNY Executive Board remarked. “Other New York Republican representatives Elise Stefanik (R-NY21) and Tom Reed (R-NY23) have also voted against Pell Grants, and their districts encompass both private and public universities such as Cornell University, Ithaca College, Elmira College, SUNY Plattsburgh, St. Lawrence University, and SUNY Potsdam.”

According to a recent study made by The Upshot and published in The New York Times, approximately 25 percent of Vassar students currently qualify for Pell Grants, one of the highest numbers in the country. (The New York Times, “Top Colleges That Enroll Rich, Middle Class and Poor,” 09.08.14) Although the DCCC advertisements will not appear in any Vassar publications, many hope that their efforts will still resonate with students on campus, for many of whom Pell Grants are foundational to their ability to pay for their education.

Vassar Democrats President Seth Bynum ’15 commented in an emailed statement, “Financial aid is not only a Vassar, but it is an ‘every college’ issue. Millions of students around the country are taking the time and spending the money to better themselves and receive an education. We as young people are taught that education is the silver pill in regards to improving ones financial standing in life as well as improving the world we live in. The current Republican budget disregards this fact to save a few billion dollars over the next 10 years. Republicans pride themselves in being the party that doesn’t give handouts and encourages people to “lift themselves up by their bootstraps.’ A student who receives a Pell Grant is not given a free pass afterwards, they still must earn high marks through hard work and determination and graduate from college.”

Although the Republican budget plan has passed in the House, the Senate and the Executive branch will soon have the chance to weigh in, after which the future of the Pell Grant may become more clear.

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