03/14/2012 02:23 pm ET Updated May 14, 2012

Why Pell Grants Make a Difference

In an early Season Four episode of The West Wing, two members of the president's staff are stranded in rural Indiana during a campaign trip and encounter a friendly man at an airport bar. The man explains how he had just taken his daughter to visit Notre Dame, and then begins lamenting the difficulties of paying for a college education as a working-class American:

"It should be hard, I like that it's hard. Putting your daughter through college? That's a man's job, a man's accomplishment. But it should be a little easier, just a little easier, because in that difference is everything."

In a recent post-grad application, I was asked to fill out a detailed description of how much I had paid for college over the past four years and where those funds came from. The total cost, before any aid or scholarship: $192,080.

With college affordability becoming an increasing problem, and with Rick Santorum still lecturing about the evils of subsidizing liberal indoctrination centers--or, as most refer to them as, colleges -- I wanted to write about a topic that, while not being the sexiest of subjects, has had a particular significance in my own life: the Federal Pell Grant Program.

A mainstay on the deficit-reduction chopping block, the Federal Pell Grant Program is particularly vulnerable due to its limited effect of the total cost of college. Meant to extend the opportunity of higher education to low-income individuals, the Pell Grant is capped at $5,550 a year--a number that pales in comparison to the overall cost of college. In my case, for instance, I have received $11,075 from the program over four years, or 5.8% of the total costs of my Puget Sound education. I would have gone to college with or without the Pell Grant, and that simple truth lies at the heart of the program's vulnerability.

However, the quick-and-easy story is an incomplete one. As a student paying for college with little financial support from my parents, I have been hyper-aware of my finances from the first day I enrolled at the University of Puget Sound.

Because of the Pell Grant program, I was able to take out fewer loans each year as I continued my education at Puget Sound. Along with that, the program eventually afforded me the ability to pay off my unsubsidized loans before they had accrued significant interest. Now, when I graduate this May, I will be looking at a much more manageable set of loans to pay off than I would have had I not received the Pell Grants that I did.

Therein lies the subtle, substantial difference Pell Grants can make.

Numerous factors have contributed to my ability to afford my college education, including Puget Sound's tuition reimbursement (which has admirably risen, on average, from 30% to 40% over the past two decades), my academic success before entering college and during, as well as the numerous jobs I have worked throughout college--both during the school year and summer.

And perhaps that is the reason the Pell Grant is so vulnerable to being cut: it is only one of many factors that make college affordable for a student like me. And with costs of colleges continuing to climb at a much faster rate than the grant program, its surface-level impact will diminish as the years go on.

The Pell Grant did not allow me to go to college, nor will it save me from bankruptcy following. Its impact came in the form of the flexibility it granted me, resulting in a financial situation that will allow me not only to graduate but also to utilize my degree without being weighed down with unreasonable loans for decades on end.

Like the character I quoted from the West Wing, I have never desired for college to be free. In fact, I believe that I will walk away with a stronger pride and appreciation of my degree than those who did not have to work as hard as I have to afford it.

"It should be hard, I like that it's hard."

It has been hard, and I am better off for it having been hard.

"But it should be a little easier, just a little easier, because in that difference is everything."

For me, the Pell Grant was that difference. Though not a monumental sum of money, it resulted in a monumental impact. And I am willing to bet a considerable amount that there are thousands of other stories similar to my own.

We live in a country founded upon the idea of equal opportunity. The Pell Grant extended me the opportunity not simply to go to college, but to make use of my college experience. It is a valuable program, and one we should not disband without considering the repercussions such a choice would have.