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Pork-barrel politics is one thing when the federal government is running surplus a la Bill Clinton. But now that the country is facing a huge and dangerous budget deficit, Congress still passed an omnibus spending bill filled to the brim with gratuitous appropriations. In the wake of another bumper crop of cash for the unnecessary to the absurd in pet Congressional districts, some belt-tightening has to happen somewhere. Congress’ latest bright idea? Cut Pell Grants to poor college kids to make up some of the difference.
A second bill to pass Congress over the last two weeks would save the federal government some loose change by modifying the formula that qualifies students for federal Pell Grants—important, often vital, government college-aid awards based on financial need. Under the proposed changes, students whose parents make between $25,000 and $30,000 will receive less funding. But the largest changes will be amongst those who earn between $30,000 and $45,000—no fortune in light of the high cost of American tuition. 84,000 students stand to lose their grants altogether. Given that the Pell Grants have not kept up with inflation and, more importantly, the rapidly increasing costs of providing education, making these cuts is essentially hitting lower income students while they are down.
At the same time, the federal government is all too ready to devote large sums of money to grapefruit research, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and numerous other juicy pieces of pork loaded into the omnibus appropriations bill, sure to help some two-bit Congressman get elected in 2006.
In these circumstances, there is no reason to reduce federal aid funding for lower income students. Those hardest hit by the funding formula changes are hardly wealthy recipients of “middle class welfare,” as some opponents of the Pell Grant system might suggest. These changes will have substantive impacts on families and students that are already struggling to cover school fees.
Harvard students are unlikely to be affected by these changes thanks to Harvard’s substantive capacity to offer financial aid. Those students who would be affected will be compensated by Harvard’s guarantee of funding through the Harvard College Fund and other grants provided to lower income students, regardless of changes in federal funding.
Sadly, very few other schools have the financial resources to make guarantees like this, which may leave large numbers of students out in the cold or force them out of college entirely. This under-the-radar gutting of the Pell Grant program will ensure that equality of opportunity in the United States remains further from our grasp than ever.
However, the Staff, much like Jonathan Swift commenting on the Irish potato famine, likes to find a silver lining to every possible demographic disaster. The federal government may succeed in doing something other than ensuring America is a less numerate, less literate place with great grapefruit juice. As college funding options decline, more and more students will have little choice but to serve in the armed forces in order to fund their college educations. An influx of adolescents from lower income families desperate to escape poverty through education can be redirected to the streets of Fallujah, or even Damascus or Tehran. If subsequent foreign adventures are anything like recent ones, the government might never have to deliver on its promise of funding their education following their service.
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