A Plea to Cut Pell Wisely

These are painful times for supporters of the Pell Grant Program. With deficit-reduction frenzy astir in this city, the federal government’s primary financial aid program for needy college students is square in the sights of budget cutters, many of whom profess support for the program but say it has become too big and too unsustainable not to be a target. The program has increased by about 150 percent since 2005-6, from $14.4 billion then to an estimated $34.4 billion in 2010-11.

With Republican leaders in the House having approved a plan that would cut the size of grants by as much as $2,000 across the board, supporters of the program — who historically have pushed unequivocally for increases in Pell and against any declines — are searching for alternatives. They now find themselves in the uncomfortable position of figuring out how to cut the program — a situation more than one higher education official has compared to choosing among one’s children. In its 2012 budget plan, for instance, the Obama administration proposed ending the two-year-old program that allows low-income students to qualify for two Pell Grants in a single award year if they enroll in the summer.

In that spirit, a group of economists who specialize in higher education and financial aid has weighed in with a series of recommendations about how Congress — if it must rein in federal spending on Pell Grants in the short term — might do the least damage to the program’s key goals: aiding the neediest students who are capable of success in college and helping them make educational progress.

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