Pell and the Presidential Campaign

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At a recent meet-the-candidate forum, Gov. Mitt Romney broke with his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), on the issue of Pell Grants. The FY 2013 budget Ryan crafted, and which ultimately passed in the House of Representatives, called for big cuts to the Pell Grant program. It cut both Pell benefits and eligibility. The Ryan Budget also froze the maximum grant at $5,550. In contrast, Romney said Pell grants should grow with the rate of inflation to help students meet the skyrocketing costs of attending college.

On the surface, Romney’s support for Pell resembles President Obama’s. The president’s 2013 budget proposal allowed the maximum Pell Grant to increase to match inflation. However, to make maintaining the Pell maximum grant amount feasible and cover 2011 and 2012 shortfalls, the Obama administration backed recent budget agreements that reduced Pell costs by $56 billion. For example, in the 2011 fiscal year the president supported the elimination of “year-round” Pell Grants, and in 2012 supported further eligibility reductions. Together, these measures cut Pell costs by roughly $5 billion (12 percent) per year and by $56 billion over 10 years. These limitations were supported by Ryan although Romney has not weighed in on them publicly.

Despite these deep cuts, the Pell faces a large funding gap in the 2014 fiscal year because Congress has continually failed to fund the program at appropriate levels. How each candidate proposes to close this gap without cutting the maximum award or further reducing eligibility is the real test of whether he is a true champion of college affordability for low-income students.

Romney says he supports increasing Pell at the rate of inflation, but does he plan to offset that increase by changing the eligibility rules so that fewer low-income students are able to qualify for Pell? Or is he willing to consider other, more responsible actions such as increasing revenue to prevent drastic, avoidable cuts in 2014? Similarly, President Obama claims to support Pell, but he has acquiesced to enormous cuts over the last couple of years. Will he continue to do so? Or will he once again propose, and advocate for, making Pell funding mandatory?

These questions remain to be answered. Meanwhile Romney deserves a cautious kudo for recognizing the importance of Pell and defending it. So does President Obama. Regardless of which candidate ultimately wins the upcoming election, it is an encouraging sign that addressing college affordability is on the radar.

— Lynn Jennings