Pell on the chopping block

Federal grant program is facing steep cuts

Dominique O’Neal doesn’t get any financial help from her family to pay for school. Her mother is unemployed, and her father left the family long ago. Originally from San Bruno, the Chico State sophomore comes from a background that makes it difficult to graduate from college.

Her goal of earning a degree in theater would be highly improbable were it not for the Pell grant award she received for the 2010-11 academic year—about $5,500 in federal financial assistance that helps her afford the high cost of higher education.

“If it [the Pell grant] got cut, it would affect me big time,” O’Neal said during a recent interview. “I would have to take out a loan. I would be struggling as a student. I would have to get a full-time job. And I feel like it would really kill the diversity; there would be fewer people [of color at Chico State].”

Pell is the nation’s largest grant program, and a bill making its way through Congress is putting it in danger of being cut significantly. House Resolution (H.R.) 1, a bill that looked to cut federal spending by $100 billion for the remainder of the current fiscal year, would have reduced spending for the program by $5.7 billion starting with the 2011-12 school year. The bill passed in the Republican-dominated House last month. It was shot down by Senate Democrats a few weeks ago, but continued revisions mean Pell grants are still on the chopping block.

Under the proposed legislation, Pell funding would be cut by more than 15 percent. That translates to an $845 reduction in each grant for the students who qualify for the $5,550 maximum award for fall and spring. Additionally, about 1.7 million students who receive smaller Pell awards would no longer be eligible.

The Pell Grant Program has a strong history of providing educational access for financially needy students, going back to the early 1970s. Back then it was called the Basic Education Opportunity Grant. The program was renamed for U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, a Democrat from Rhode Island, who had a clear-cut idea: Students lacking adequate financial resources who had the drive, intelligence and talent to make the most of their education should receive a grant.

During the 2010-11 academic year, close to 9 million students received Pell funding.

This academic year, about 5,800 students at Chico State received the grant, said Dan Reed, director of Chico State’s Financial Aid and Scholarship Office. He said the cuts would decrease the number of students at Chico State and increase the lack of diversity on campus.

“Cuts to the Pell grant equal cuts to education,” Reed said. “We shouldn’t be aiming the cuts at the future of our nation. … A large, uneducated, needy population … is not good for America.”

Julie Wright, a fifth-year senior and legal-studies major, will graduate before the proposed cuts would go into effect. As a recipient, she knows the value of the program.

“It helps a lot of students cover the cost of tuition, so they don’t have to work two jobs as opposed to just one,” said Wright, who graduates this May. “If the bill was passed, I do see a lot more students having to rely on loans. People will have to resort to a different alternative.”

Wright used her award to pay off part of her tuition while relying on a loan and the income of two jobs to pay for her living expenses. Without Pell, she says she would have been living paycheck to paycheck, barely making it through college.

Some wouldn’t make it at all.

“In Chico, that [H.R. 1 passing] would have meant a reduction of $3.5 million of Pell, and that’s not even including the summer,” said Kentiner David, interim associate director of Chico State’s Financial Aid and Scholarships Office. “Without Pell, there’d be a lot fewer students in school, no doubt about it.”