Pell Grant Funding in the “America First” Budget

Dina Rosin (CMC ’20)

Administered by the United States Department of Education, a Pell Grant is a subsidy given to students to help pay for college, an expense that is rapidly rising at institutions across the nation. The Pell Grant is awarded to students with demonstrated financial need, and the amount given to students is determined by a standard formula derived from information given on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Pell Grants, as the name suggests, do not need to be repaid by the student. While President Donald Trump has claimed that the proposed new federal budget will “safeguard” the Pell Grant, many argue that his new budget is actually detrimental to low-income students across the country.

The Pell Grant serves as an example of federal government intervention on a role that is typically relegated to the states: education. While states are tasked with creating public institutions that make education more affordable, it is still difficult for low-income students to pursue higher education. While every state provides some grant aid on the state-level, state-aid is not enough to pay the high cost of college, and the Pell Grant attempts to help close this gap via federal intervention. The Pell Grant was originally proposed in the Higher Education Act of 1965. Title IV of the act states that its purpose is to “assist in making available the benefits of postsecondary education to eligible students.” While access to higher education is generally seen as an uncontroversial and non-partisan, the way it is funded is continually debated.

The Republican platform generally supports the conservative belief of smaller government, and, thus, advocates for the government to not provide student loans. Conservatives often support “private sector participation in student financing,” which would aim to end direct student loan programs provided by the federal government. On the other hand, Democrats hope for the federal government to directly invest funds into programs such as Pell Grants. The Democratic platform proposes that students should be able to graduate college without student debt. Further, and, likely due to the immense support of Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) campaign, the Democratic party advocates for free tuition at public colleges and universities for families below an as yet unspecified family income. As Democrats are in favor of increased government aid for individuals to attend college, they are generally in support of the existence and expansion of the Pell Grant.

President Trump’s recently presented “America First” budget “safeguards the Pell Grant program” by adjusting the funding mechanisms to protect the Pell program for the next decade. Critics of the budget, however, note that the funds which would go towards financial aid are being cut in other avenues, which could be detrimental to low- and mid- income students. For example, this proposed budget eliminates the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) program, which includes grant aid that is given out through the discretion of each participating school’s financial aid office. The FSEOG program helps students afford school when the Pell Grant is insufficient to make financing their education feasible. In the proposed budget, $732 million will be cut from student financial aid grants by the elimination of this program. The details of this budget illustrate that the Pell Grant program will continue to be funded for the foreseen future. However, the underlying purpose of the Pell Grant, which is to help students afford college, might be at risk.

If the 2018 fiscal proposal that has been drafted by the Trump Administration is approved, accessibility to higher education for low-income students might be hindered, despite continued financial support for the Pell Grant. The Pell Grant is generally the most well-recognized federal financial aid program, and cuts made to this program would be widely controversial in public opinion. By protecting Pell Grant funding while simultaneously cutting supplemental federal financial aid programs, however, the Trump Administration may be undermining the success of the Pell Grant. For example, the maximum Pell Grant award amount is $5,775. For low- to mid-income students, they are likely to need additional aid to comfortably attend college. Thus, though the protection of Pell Grant funding is surely a positive, closer inspection of federal financial aid suggests that the financial future of students in need may be in question.  

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