Meridian Star

Columns

November 19, 2012

Pell grant program remains a target

STARKVILLE —     While some U.S. college students celebrated and some protested President Barack Obama’s reelection, Pell grant recipients looked at the outcome of the election through the prism of the victor’s impact on the program.

    Pell Grants, formerly known as Basic Educational Opportunity Grants, are named after the late six-term former Democratic U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island. These federal grants provide funds for millions of American low-income students attending institutions of higher learning to help them pay for their educations.

    On the stump, Obama claimed to have doubled the total amount of funding available for Pell grants. But critics argued that those grants were funded in part by the elimination of other student-friendly benefits like the in-school interest benefit on Stafford loans for graduate students and summer enrollment Pell benefits.

    Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign promised “refocus Pell Grant dollars on the students that need them most and place the program on a responsible long-term path that avoids future funding cliffs and last-minute funding patches.” But the Fiscal Year 2013 House budget resolution authored by Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, would make substantive cuts and enforce tighter fiscal constraints on the Pell grant program in terms of eligibility, limit the total of grant funds available and end the entitlement portion of the program – which would enable future cuts.

    Regardless the occupant of the White House, the ultimate impact on the Pell grant program will come from Congress and decisions that the legislative branch of government makes about future Pell appropriations.

    What does this debate mean to Mississippi higher education finance? The impact is extreme. For FY 2008-2009, 96,179 Mississippi students received $259.3 million dollars in Pell Grants. $236.8 million of those grants went to state-supported institutions. In 2009, 42 percent of Mississippi university students received Pell grants.

    While the national average of college students receiving Pell Grants is 27 percent, the average in Mississippi is higher — ranging in the 2008-2009 school year from 28 percent at Mississippi State University to 37 percent at Delta State University to 38 percent at the University of Southern Mississippi to 44 percent at Mississippi University for Woman to 68 percent at Jackson State University, 71 percent at Alcorn State University and 76 percent at Mississippi Valley State University. Data was unavailable for the University of Mississippi.

    At state private colleges, Pell Grants are part of the education finance landscape as well. In 2008-2009, 36 percent of Belhaven College students were Pell Grant recipients as were 34 percent at Mississippi College, 19 percent at Millsaps College and 76 percent at Tougaloo College. The average Mississippi college student, even with those federal grants, leaves college with $22,566 in debt.

    Regardless the reaction to the outcome of the presidential election among college students or the tenor of the “fiscal cliff” debate on Capitol Hill, the long-term future of the Pell grant program in Mississippi will have a tremendous impact on access to higher education in the poorest state in the union.

    Yet as with other “limitless” entitlement program, how can Congress reach any sort of compromise on avoiding the “fiscal cliff’ and the long-term debt and deficit problems that confront this nation without also looking at entitlements like Pell grants?

    Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com

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