"Pell Grants were to be for the most needy students—most needy students," Foxx stressed. "The poverty rate in this country is about 15 percent right now; 27 percent of all college students are getting Pell Grants. It appears to me that the program has gone way beyond its scope."
But it is these most needy students, advocates of full Pell Grant funding for 2011-12 say, who would be in most jeopardy if the House bill is approved, since H.R. 1 lowers the maximum amount of funding for the lowest-income students by about $800.
"These are the students…who are already receiving quite a bit of loans to the point where a lot of students can't just pick up $845 working an extra shift at their work or getting another loan," says Rich Williams, higher education advocate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization. "These students tend to be maxed out in everything."
While full-funding proponents such as Williams acknowledge the program faces long-term sustainability issues, some contend that cuts for the 2011-12 school year are ill timed. By law, the U.S. Department of Education published federal funding tables for financial aid administrators on Feb. 1, indicating that Congressional funding was adequate to sustain the Pell Grant Program at last year's rates. Because financial aid advisers have had more than a month to deliver aid offers to future students, the House cuts, if approved by the Senate, could muddle the plans of financial aid offices across the country.
"We are in the middle of developing packages for students who have been admitted," says the University of Southern California's Executive Director of Financial Aid Thomas McWhorter. "We strive to have a package to them in April so they have a full month to decide. It's extremely important that we have the right information when we are telling families what to expect in their package."
Cuts to the Pell Grant Program could also put a strain on families who depend on the grant for financial assistance. For the Hoebbel family, the Pell Grant is just a "fraction" of the resources used to send Chris, a sophomore at Alfred University, to college, his father Tom says, but it remains a crucial component of the financial aid package. "It would be a big impact," Hoebbel says of a decrease in his son's Pell Grant. "We're at the point where even with all the grants, financial aid, and loans, we still have a balance at the end. Any cuts in any of these grants [means] either a bigger loan or more money out of pocket—which we don't have a lot of."
[Explore the U.S. News guide to paying for college.]
But in the event that Pell Grant students lose some of their federal funding, officials surveyed stressed that there are other means students can use to finance their education. USC's McWhorter says his office would use other university need-based aid to fill gaps left by a smaller Pell Grant. Rep. Foxx, former president of Maryland Community College, recommends seeking out part-time jobs and additional scholarships from schools that otherwise would go unused.
Angela Isom, who counsels about 400 low-income high school students in Ohio through the college application process, says the proposed cuts challenge her to be honest with needy students about loan debt, but that the risk of less federal funding shouldn't deter an informed student's pursuit of higher education.
"I do think it's sad that students who were looking to that for a chance [may] now have to graduate with significantly more loans than previously in history," says Isom, who went to school with the help of a Pell Grant. "Overall, it [would be] a significant cut, but it's not worth not attending college."
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