Students stressed about ambiguous federal aid for college this fall finally have some clarity, thanks to the Continuing Resolution published by the U.S. Senate Tuesday.
Despite almost $40 billion in government-wide budget cuts, the Pell Grant program, once a potential victim of these cuts, has been sustained for the 2011-12 school year. The grant, which helps more than 9 million Americans pay for college, will stay set at a $5,550 maximum for the most needy students.
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This decision trumps a mandate included in H.R. 1, a Continuing Resolution passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in February. House members voted to cut the maximum Pell award by $845. In addition, more than 1.7 million students who qualify for smaller amounts of aid would have no longer received the funding. In a speech Wednesday, President Obama called another proposal by House Republicans to decrease long-term funding for Pell, among other services and aid, "the kind of cuts that tell us we can't afford the America we believe in."
The Senate's decision to maintain the Pell Grant marks the end of an uneasy period for students, administrators, and financial aid officers alike. Waiting to hear about Pell funding caused "immense anxiety" at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, according to the school's president, Charles Flynn, who lobbied New York senators to maintain the funding levels. Slightly more than half of his school's student body qualifies for Pell Grant funding.
"The importance of public support for ... talented students of high financial need backgrounds is absolutely critical for the American Dream to stay alive here and everywhere," Flynn says. "This [decision] means that students of greatest needs have those resources available to them to attend college."
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The grant levels, however, are not guaranteed in the long term. The Senate's budget already eliminated the year-round Pell Grant, a relatively new provision that permitted students to receive two grants in one year. Doing away with the two-grant availability will reduce the overall cost of the Pell program and will help narrow a shortfall of grant funding in the future, according to the C.R.'s Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Summary. It remains unclear what Pell funding will look like for the 2012-13 school year and beyond.
For this year, students and parents still need to stay abreast of funding debates that continue to rage at the state level, since state funding changes could still affect schools' financial aid package awards. But one major component, at least, is now assured.
"It's going to allow millions of families to breathe a sigh of relief that their financial aid packages will mostly be finalized, since the Pell Grant is such a huge component of whether or not they'll be able to go to or stay in school," says Rich Williams, higher education advocate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
"While there's a couple nuts and bolts that might have to be figured out at the state level," he continues, "this is the big thing many families have been waiting for."
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