More than 1 million students would lose Pell grants entirely over the next 10 years under Rep. Paul Ryan's budget, according to an analysis that the national reform organization Education Trust provided to The Huffington Post.
And by the looks of it, the Ryan budget, which is slated to hit the House floor this week, would hit the poorest kids hardest.
"We could see disastrous consequences for America's children over the next couple of years," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said at a budget hearing last week, according to Education Week. "Passage of the Ryan budget would propel the educational success of this country backwards for years to come."
The plan proposed by Ryan (R-Wis.), who chairs the House Budget Committee, would chop away at Pell grant eligibility, thereby reducing total Pell grants by about $200 billion over the next decade; allow the interest rate for federally subsidized Stafford loans to double; end student loan interest subsidies for those still in school; and make Pell spending discretionary — instead of mandatory — allowing further cuts down the line. Pell grants, the largest source of federal financial aid, currently help more than 9 million students to afford college. Following last year's budget standoffs, next year's maximum Pell grant of $5,645 will cover just one-third of the average cost of college — the smallest share ever.
While Ryan's budget declares that "the Nation's students must have the opportunity to access … high-quality education," some experts say that his budget undermines that goal.
"They talk about the need for making education more affordable, but it doesn't seem to be borne out in the details of the budget that's put forward," said Rory O'Sullivan, who directs policy for the Young Invincibles, a youth advocacy group.
The budget would cut Pell grant eligibility for students who attend classes on a less-than-halftime schedule — which usually means low-income students who need to work their way through college.
And it gets worse. Sixty percent of students who receive Pell grants also take out loans — twice the rate for college students overall — so they might be doubly hit by the Ryan cuts: In addition to receiving less Pell money, they would have to start paying interest on their loans while still in school. "You're taxing the same low-income students more than once," warned Jose Cruz, director of higher education policy at the Education Trust.
The Ryan budget would remove a trigger that helps students below a certain income threshold bypass a lengthy application process, a move O'Sullivan said would likely discourage some students from applying at all. It would also provide for a maximum income cap for eligibility and set a "sustainable maximum award," which it suggests should be $5,550 — less than the current maximum Pell grant.
Representatives from Ryan's office did not return requests for comment.
While the Ryan budget is unlikely to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate, it's a potent reminder of where Republicans stand on funding higher education for those who can't afford it. "Ryan's plan shows where the Republicans are going to go this year with appropriations," said Jack Jennings, a former longtime Democratic congressional aide who until recently directed the Center on Education Policy. "More importantly, if they gain the presidency and the Congress, this will be where they bring the country."
The GOP's frontrunner for the presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has been similarly blasè about college affordability. At an Ohio campaign stop earlier in March, when Romney was asked what he would do about rising college costs, he said he'd do nothing.
"It would be popular for me to stand up and say I'm going to give you government money to pay for your college, but I'm not going to promise that," Romney said, according to the New York Times. "Don't just go to one that has the highest price. Go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education. And hopefully you'll find that. And don't expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on." Romney didn't specifically mention Pell grants.
The issue blew up a month ago when another GOP presidential contender, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, described President Barack Obama's suggestion that students attend college as snobbish.
Jennings acknowledged that Republicans want Americans to have better educational opportunities, just without government help. He noted that Pell grants were first created with bipartisan support. "This budget won't eliminate the deficit," Jennings said. "It's meant to carry out an ideological purpose: to cut government."
Like Jennings, Cruz is concerned about the broader ramifications of the Ryan budget. "It's a clear signal that if you're low-income, it's going to be even harder to get higher education if we go down this path," Cruz said. "This is the blueprint the budget puts forward for future Pell debates."
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who chaired the House education committee when Democrats last controlled the lower chamber, expressed his concerns.
"The Republican budget is an affront to millions of low-income students seeking to obtain a college education," Miller said. "By slashing Pell Grants and other critical programs students and families rely on, it puts a college degree out of reach for many students and only shortchanges the nation's economic competitiveness."