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Last Week’s Debate – “Is the Pell Grant Program Sustainable?”


Originally posted at All Education Matters.

While millions of Americans will join the indentured educated class after graduation this Spring, policy analysts focused their attention on money going directly to the institutions of higher education. The issue at hand last week? Pell Grants.

I want to make it clear: I am not against Pell. Not in the least. Also, I have written in defense of it a number of times. Moreover, All Education Matters has signed numerous letters that were sent to the White House in defense of Pell. That said, I am growing weary of this obsession with it, and it raises red flags about the politics behind the campaign to save Pell. After all, there are other programs that could be rescued or helped out, so why this one? Policy wonks and supportive politicians are fixated on “saving Pell,” even though the maximum amount – $5,500 – is pocket change when compared to the out of control costs for college.  This fixation allows most, not all, people in this community to downplay the true crisis, and enables them to continue having the same tired old conversations about the cost of higher education.

According to Senior Policy Analyst Steve Burd, who moderated the discussion about Pell, Education Sector got a lot of “flack” for the title of the Pell Grant discussion.That was the first question for the panelists – is it sustainable? (I recommend, by the way, reading Burd’s work. I have always had a tremendous amount of respect for him, and I hope Education Sector knows how lucky they are to have him on board).

What really needs to be addressed? Money that is being sucked up by the Pentagon and Defense Industry. There is no money for higher education – that’s why we are facing a student lending crisis, and it’s catastrophic. It would be great if there could be a panel about that crisis and how a lot of folks are really hurting out in regular ol’ America. But I suppose we should leave it to higher ed technocrats to tell us what really matters.

But we’re just a bunch of intellectually deficient hillbillies, so forget my comments about this chatter not meaning something within the beltway! Because I don’t like to think of higher education as being part of the “knowledge economy,” my views are not nearly as hard-hitting as some of these policy wonks. Besides, I am concerned about current debtors, and no one in D.C. has much to say about them. They don’t want to talk about them. It’s not politically popular, because they do not have political sway. This means they can be ignored, just like the poor.

Here are some of the highlights (and these aren’t all endorsements):

“We have a panic every year to come up with another one time increase” – Jason Desisle 

“Is the Pell Grant Program sustainable? My short answer is – of course. Of course the Pell Grant Program is sustainable. And it has to be. I don’t have to tell this room the importance of the knowledge economy, the fact that we make money whenever we get someone through college. I suspect we could pay the whole way for a poor person to go through college, and it would pay off. Not only in the increased earnings and increased taxes, we could look at student loan numbers . . . just the return the federal government is getting on that. We also know when someone goes to college, it is an inter-generational step out of poverty [my emphasis].” – Sarah Flanagan

“I want to say that I am not only here as a representative of the Education Trust, who works on these issues, and a member of the Save Pell campaign, but also as a former beneficiary of the Pell Grant Program . . . If it’s a program under attack in the Ryan Budget, I probably benefited from it in some way . . . Are Pell Grants sustainable? The first thing that comes to mind is that it is a flawed question . . . it’s really not if we’re willing or capable of sustaining the program, particularly . . . when it comes to opportunity deficits that we need to keep in mind. In quality, it is at an all time in America, it’s on par with Tunisia, Sri Lanka, and Morocco. Social mobility is at an all time low in America on par with Nepal and Pakistan . . . We all know that student loan debt in the U.S. has reached the $1 trillion mark, surpassing credit card debt . . . So, if we feel there is worth in defending the democratic ideals of opportunity and social mobility, I think we cannot afford to say that we can’t sustain the Pell Grant Program [my emphasis].  ” –  Jose Cruz

“I’m the one without the name tag here, because I came in this morning, and it said, ‘Jon Oberg, U.S. Department of Education.’ I haven’t been at the U.S. Department of Education for 7 years, and I am not sure if they would claim me now . . . If there were to be fireworks here, it would be playing on the field that has been set by the House Budget Committee and those rules. I think the title of the panel today is due to what that body has done in its work and its analysis, and it has posed this question. I think it is the wrong question, not perhaps for the panel, but for the country. I would be among those who believe that our federal investment in higher education, including the investment in access and success for lower income students and in our broader federal level of research at our institutions of higher education, should not be cut. If anything I would argue for increases . . . [we’re] falling in international standing, and I’d like very much to talk about some comparatives, and look at other countries to see how they are able to do this, because we have a lot of lessons that I think we could learn [my emphasis].” – Jon Oberg

Winners? Jon Oberg, but Jose Cruz came in at a close second. Oberg discussed the disinvesment in higher education – yup, that sums it up.

Losers? Jason Desisle takes that prize, and Sarah Flanagan was close behind.

Cryn Johannsen is founder and Executive Director of All Education Matters.

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