Challenging times such as these present decision-makers with opportunities to either deeply assess the problems within our society and craft public policies to alleviate them or to shallowly continue the status quo beefed up with soaring but empty rhetoric. On Friday, February 18, the House of Representatives was faced with one of those moments and chose the latter. By a vote of 235-189, the House passed HR 1, the continuing resolution, which cuts $11 billion, or 16 percent, from the Department of Education. If a budget is truly a document of priorities, it is clear that the 112th House of Representatives does not value education.
The cuts worsen the closer one examines them. HR 1 slashes the Pell Grant, which over nine million low-income students use to attend college, by 15 percent. This cut means a reduction in the maximum award amount, which is administered to the students most in need of financial assistance, by $845, bringing their financial aid down from $5,550 to $4,705. The average Pell Grant award amount will drop by $785. Being able to use this money for textbooks, transportation, child care, or other costs can make the difference between staying in and dropping out of school. A reduction of this magnitude in the Pell Grant means that the House's continuing resolution will effectively end the college education for many low-income students.
Most Pell Grant recipients come from families whose total annual income is around $20,000, meaning programs such as this are the only things keeping their heads enough above water to stay in school. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education has called the Pell Grant program the "cornerstone of African American higher education," because 46 percent of black undergraduates receive the Pell Grant, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 69 percent of African Americans who don't graduate from college say it was due to cost; 49 percent of Latino youth put off college due to cost. In HR 1, the House of Representatives told the American people that these students are not worth their investment.
The Pell Grant, while the cornerstone of federal financial aid, is not the only program that suffered an unnecessary funding blow. HR 1 also slashes $25 million from TRIO, a federal program that reduces economic, social, academic, and cultural barriers to higher education for traditionally underrepresented and disadvantaged youth. Unbelievably, the legislation also eliminates the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG), a program in which federal funds promote access to postsecondary education by providing critical support to students with the lowest Expected Family Contribution.
Representative Steve King (R-IA) sponsored two amendments that block funding and implementation of the student aid reform legislation President Obama signed into law last spring in the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act. This policy takes the tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies going to private lenders who take advantage of students and redirects the funding to the Pell Grant, minority-serving institutions, and other critical higher education programs. By blocking this law, the House's continuing resolution removed one of the only policies protecting young people from unscrupulous lenders making money off of students and families struggling to pay for college.
Protecting higher education spending isn't just the right thing to do, it's the politically popular move as well. A recent Harris poll, released Wednesday, February 16, found that 71% of Americans polled oppose cutting federal education spending, more than any other program except social security. Congressional leadership would do well to reexamine what 'the American people' really want in a federal budget.
Representative John Kline (R-MN), chair of the Education and Workforce Committee, sponsored an amendment to prohibit the Department of Education from implementing regulations on higher education institutions, most notably for-profit colleges, that graduate too many students with unusable degrees and mountains of debt. Ten percent of students attend for-profit colleges yet account for almost half of all loan defaults and a quarter of all students graduating from these colleges default on their loans within three years. Despite this clear misuse of public funds, the Pell Grant and other federal student aid dollars make up an average of 77 percent of for-profit colleges' income. A lion's share of the Pell Grant goes to these institutions, many of which are destroying the lives of targeted low-income students. The House resolution makes sure that the federal government does nothing to stop this.
In offering his amendment to end one of the most popular provisions of the health care law that allows young people to remain on their parents' health plans until the age of 26, Representative Jack Kingston (R-GA) stated that kids don't need to be running home to mommy and daddy until they're 26 for health care. The recession has left college graduates who have taken out mountains of debt without employment or health care coverage. This law was passed in response to this reality, not to pamper kids who just don't want to work. It's ironic that members of Congress are accusing young people of being lazy for not getting their own health insurance when they are simultaneously devastating the very financial aid programs that would give students the tools to graduate from college and get a job with health insurance.
In all, HR 1 shows just how little the 112th House of Representatives prioritizes young people and a college education. Destroying the means to increase college access and affordability is a sure way to undermine the goal of strengthening America's economic and social foundation. USSA looks to the Senate to champion college students and fiscal prudence by actually prioritizing the nation's youth in its version of the resolution.
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