Passing on the Pork

By Matt Loy

Score one—or better yet, make it one hundred thousand—for the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center. Low-income students: zero.

Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, home to the lovable groundhog-cum-weather prophet Punxsutawney Phil (popularized in the 1993 Bill Murray film Groundhog Day), got a boost last week when residents learned they had found favor in the traditional year-end Congressional appropriations bill. Thanks to some last minute wrangling by Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., the federal government will be allocating $100,000 for the creation of a weather museum there. According to a website maintained by the local chamber of commerce, the “discovery center” will “educate a variety of groups, individuals, ages, and cognitive levels about the weather using folklore, history, science and technology” and “enhance Punxsutawney’s (the home of Groundhog Day) claim as the Weather Capital of the World”—a worthy purpose indeed.

Practically buckling under the weight of its frivolity, the $388 billion annual spending bill budgets billions of dollars for projects that, like the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center, were tacked on by legislators to curry favor with their constituents. While no one can come to a clear consensus on whether a certain issue qualifies as so-called pork barrel spending, estimates of the total set aside for these pet projects range from $11 billion to $16 billion. Other questionable giveaways in the bill include $250,000 for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, $500,000 to renovate ski trails in Alaska, $4.9 million to refurbish historic bathhouses in Arizona, and $75,000 to the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame in Appleton, Wisconsin.

These projects might seem harmless enough. (After all, who doesn’t love historic bathhouses and weather folklore?) But what Peterson and his fellow champions of pet projects presumably won’t be including in their glossy re-election campaign brochures is that Congress also approved an adjustment to the chronically under-funded Pell Grant program, the principal means by which American students receive need-based government grants to attend college. Eligibility for the awards is determined in part by an examination of state tax information, but lawmakers chose to use tax tables that were out of date, clearing the way for some 84,000 students with annual incomes between $30,000 and $45,000 to be removed from the program. At the same time, Congress voted to keep the maximum annual Pell award at $4,050, ignoring the urgent need for an increase precipitated by tuition increases at public universities over the last decade.

All of this might seem to have little consequence for Harvard students. A November 2003 article in The Crimson reported that a scant 9 percent of Harvard undergraduates receive Pell Grants in the first place. And if any of those students were to lose their federal money under the new calculations, Harvard would continue to grant the student that amount under the College’s commitment to meet 100 percent of a student’s demonstrated financial need.

But the change could mean difficulty for Harvard’s new drive to recruit low-income students. Research indicates that students and their families often overestimate the cost of college and that eligible students are not applying for federal financial aid out of confusion over the process. Discouragement about the cost of attending college could deter academically qualified students from taking standardized tests and seeking information about higher education—two disturbing factors that allow such students to fly under the radar of recruitment efforts at Harvard and other universities.

Next year, government finance for post-secondary education will come under the legislative microscope again when Congress debates the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the federal law that provides the architecture for the Pell Grant program. Harvard should set its lobbyists on Capital Hill to work. They should not only preserve the money to which low-income undergraduates here have the right, but also articulate the broader social agenda that the government should not be shirking its duty to provide equal opportunity economically disadvantaged students at all levels and institutions of post-secondary education.

In the meantime, however, Congress is wrong to let low-income high school students slip through the cracks—and to assume that the irony of their simultaneous pork barrel spending is lost on the rest of us. It seems that, for now, economically disadvantaged students hoping for a college education will just have to settle for a trip to Pennsylvania and a crash course in weather history instead.

Matt Loy ’07 is an English concentrator in Eliot House.