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Pell Grants Seen at Risk in Debt Ceiling Debate

By Alyson Klein — July 20, 2011 2 min read
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Supporters of Pell Grants are nervously eyeing the debate over raising the debt ceiling. Pell Grants, which are federal scholarships to help needy students cover the cost of post-secondary education, have become increasingly popular in recent years, as more students return to seek another degree.

And while that’s a good thing for college-access fans, it’s putting a big strain on spending. In fact, the Pell Grant program has an $11 billion deficit. (To put that number in perspective, that’s about how much money the feds are spending this year on state grants for special education. So we’re talking a large amount of cash, even in federal budget terms.)

Now there’s speculation that lawmakers are looking to the Pell Grant program to find savings that will help fuel an agreement to boost the debt ceiling. In fact, a proposal recently released by a group of six senators working on debt reduction calls for trimming the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education collectively by $70 billion over the next 10 years.

Spending committees would get to decide where that money comes from, but advocates fear there’s no way to get to that number without at least making some changes to the Pell Grant program. Advocates are especially worried because, at least for now, the primary folks doing the negotiating on the debt ceiling aren’t lawmakers with a long-term interest in education, they’re folks with budget expertise.

There’s no telling whether the compromise proposal, which still must be fleshed out and was just announced July 19, will end up becoming law. But advocates are hoping the administration and Congress will pledge to take Pell Grants off the table.

“If we’re going to be economically competitive in the future, we need these students to get degrees, but we’re talking about taking away the support they need” to pay for them, said Kate Tromble, the director of legislative affairs for The Education Trust, which advocates for poor and minority students. She said that there’s been a “huge push in states to ensure students are college- or career-ready,” and helping needy students pay for higher education is part of that effort.

Over the past week, there’s been a flurry of letters to top congressional leaders and the administration, urging them to protect Pell. Check out one from an array of advocacy groups here and another from Asian, Black, Hispanic, and progressive lawmakers here.

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