Lately, I've been hearing from people, young and old, about how the Federal Pell Grant Program changed their lives for the better.
"Without a Pell, I wouldn't have been able to pursue a college education," says a 27-year-old Alabama nonprofit grants manager whose single mother was able to send three kids to college on a rural teacher's salary, with help from Pell. "Pell Grants made a college education a realistic expectation for students like me."
Pell is America's hallmark higher-education program. For more than three decades it has invested minimal support in millions of working-class students, helping them afford college and earn their way into the middle class. Indeed, even U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis recently declared herself a "proud product of the Pell Grant program."
So why then, at a time when employers and economists bemoan the shortage of skilled American workers, when the economy is sputtering, and when President Obama has set an ambitious agenda for college completion, would anyone even consider cutting the program?
Earlier this year, Pell's budget already took a $4 billion hit. Yet in the current debt-ceiling talks, leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives have slapped a big red target on the backs of college students and propose chopping another $10 billion from the program. Such massive cuts to Pell would mean that the maximum award would drop by 45 percent and nearly 1.5 million students would lose their Pell Grants altogether.
I call it the most insane cut. Why? By age 24, the children of the wealthy are 10 times more likely to have a college degree than the children of the poor.
Over the past three decades, college tuition and fees have grown at four times the rate of inflation. Against that alarming backdrop, Pell remains an essential ladder for hard-working students of modest means who seek a degree, a better life, and a chance to contribute to their communities.
But here's what's truly insane: the tendency of policymakers to shortchange the people who have the least, but -- because of their growing numbers -- could contribute far more to our rebounding economy and to our national goal of once again leading the world in college completion.
The American people disagree. A majority opposes cutting federal programs that help low-income people to reduce the deficit, and 63 percent think making higher education more affordable is a "very effective" way of helping people who are struggling in the troubled economy.
Even in the face of this public support, Pell Grants remain on the budgetary chopping block and we need your help to fight back. A broad coalition of social justice, education, and youth groups has designated July 25 as Save Pell Day. Together, we aim to save this program, which, for more than three decades, has helped millions of students work their way into the middle class. So we're asking every¬one who cares about the future of our country to visit www.savepell.org and use Twitter, Facebook, blogs, e-mail, and other online tools on July 25 to voice opposition to cuts to Pell.
In the coming days, policymakers must keep in mind America's opportunity deficit, even as they seek to tame the budget deficit. For the sake of our youth, our economy, and our collective future, President Obama and Congressional leaders must protect the hard-working students who rely on Pell.
A balanced budget means policies that attend to our present needs, without compromising those of future generations. Anything less is, well, unbalanced.