Negotiations about raising the federal debt ceiling are in a state of stasis and some conservative House freshmen have singled out funding for low-income college students as a target of their ire. Asserting that, as Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD.) puts it, they “really don’t understand why we’re increasing spending in a bill supposed to be cutting spending,” some House Republicans are balking at House Speaker John Boehner’s debt ceiling plan because it would appropriate $9 billion for Pell Grants for low-income college students in 2012 and another $8 billion in 2013.
Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) has compared Pell Grants to “welfare” according to The Hill:
“So you can go to college on Pell Grants — maybe I should not be telling anybody this because it’s turning out to be the welfare of the 21st century,” Rehberg told Blog Talk Radio in April. “You can go to school, collect your Pell Grants, get food stamps, low-income energy assistance, Section 8 housing, and all of a sudden we find ourselves subsidizing people that don’t have to graduate from college.”
Rehberg suggests that, give students their maximum $5,550 in Pell Grants, and they’ll just go on living the easy life thanks also to food stamps, “free” housing and the like — they will just go on and be “welfare students.” It’s rhetoric that insults the reality of why students apply for, and need, Pell Grants, because they’ve worked hard in the face of huge challenges (including, like many of my students, attending poor urban high schools in crime-ridden areas) just to get to college; because they don’t want to live on food stamps or in subsidized housing; because they want to help support younger siblings and their families; because they want to be educated and make their contribution to the economy and their country.
If Congress can’t agree about how to raise the debt ceiling, student-aid programs will be, as the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, “in limbo.” If the government defaults on its debt, it will be unable to pay out benefits like Pell Grants and other student loans. Without these grants, students will be left hanging right around the time they’re getting ready to go back to school. Colleges and universities have cut-off days (August 19 at my school) to pay tuition if students want to enroll for the fall semester and not face late fees. If federal aid is delayed in the budget morass, students could face losing the chance to enroll in fall classes period — meaning that they’ll take longer to graduate and have to figure out financing for this.
There’s a trickle-down effect to cutting off federal funding for students. Colleges and universities can’t predict enrollment, leaving their own budgets in limbo. My own college is currently having some budgetary distress due to lower-than-estimated freshman enrollment. We’re a private, Jesuit, nonprofit four-year college. In tight economic times, it’s no surprise that, whatever the benefits a small college with a social justice ethos may offer, students choose to attend larger public universities, with lower tuition and other costs.
Are you a college student receiving a Pell Grant, or does your child have one? What are your options if the US defaults and you don’t receive the grant?
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