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By Shawn Shaligram
March 12, 2013
Caption : The House Republican Budget would have a severe impact on students across the country.      


Former Republican vice-presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin unveiled a budget blueprint today for fiscal year 2014 titled "The Path to Prosperity."

As the chair of the House Budget Committee, Ryan is best known as the architect of a House budget plan to slash discretionary spending, including federal research funding, student loans and the Pell Grant program, over the next decade.

The Ryan Budget would have a severe impact on students across the country. In his report, he writes that Pell Grants, the federal  program for undergraduate students who demonstrate financial need, is "on an unsustainable path" after numerous award increases and easing of eligibility requirements during the recession.

Under the House Republican Budget, Pell Grants would be capped at the current level of $5,645 for 10 years, and eliminate all mandatory funding. In other words, under Ryan’s plan, Pell Grants would not keep up with the pace of inflation and rising tuition costs, and would be worth less each successive year. Ryan's Budget also proposed to fund the minimized Pell Grant program with discretionary funds, which would be impossible given the caps without deep cuts to other programs or eligibility changes. So to meet this, the Ryan Budget proposed just that: to change the method of calculating how much a student's family can pay for higher education, making these loans harder to get and less generous.

As Lauren Asher, the president of TICAS, explained how these changes to Pell would make college less accessible for the neediest of students in a recent statement. "The maximum Pell Grant already covers less than one-third of the cost of attending a public four-year college this fall—the lowest share since the start of the program. Freezing it for 10 years would lower its value even further, to 17 percent of college costs by 2023."

In the long run, it's predicted this budget plan will save the federal government $1.1 billion, but in return it will make higher education more unattainable for low-income students. During the 2011-2012 school year, there were 19 million valid applicants for Pell but only less than half were supported by the program, according to the Department of Education. Without access to these federal grants, low-income students that continue to pursue a higher education will likely become even more reliant on student loans, a debt crisis affecting our entire economy. And the House Republican Budget barely mentions the $1 trillion issue, and stays eerily silent on the student loan interest rates that are set to double, from 3.4 percent to 6.8, in the summer.

That silence will come at a cost to students and middle income families who rely on subsidized Stafford loans for instance to help them finance education. Last year, young people made their voices on the issue heard loud and clear and the interest rate hike was avoided, but with no mention of it in Ryan's budget, it's a safe bet to assume that saving millions of families money on Stafford is not a priority this go around.

In contrast, TICAS’ recent white paper suggested simplifying the program, and better targeted benefits to okeep federal student loans affordable.  "Student loans must be affordable—and students need to know that they will remain affordable—if we want to make sure that students of all backgrounds can stay in school and graduate," Asher said.

The budget also seems to miss the reason why Pell Grants have increased in recent years. The average cost of a bachelor's degree rose 250 percent since 1980 and almost doubled in the past 20 years.

When President Obama signed The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act into law, he committed to investing more than $40 billion in Pell Grants to ensure that all eligible students receive an award and that these awards are increased in future years to help keep pace with both inflation and the rising costs of college.

Pell Grant scholarships support more than 8 million Americans a year, but the purchasing power of these grants has rapidly diminished over time. Reducing federal aid to education will hinder the ability of low-income Millennials to contribute to our economy and society.

Given the nation’s concerns about the national deficit, it is understandable that some members of Congress wants to make cuts to the federal budget. But, we should be fighting to save Pell Grants—the only program that helps low-income students avoid high-interest student loans entirely. Legislators should set their priorities when it comes to higher education policy.

"With an educated workforce more crucial than ever to our nation’s future," said Asher, "Now is clearly the time to do more, not less, to make college affordable."

"Voters had a chance to endorse this vision when Paul Ryan's name was on all 160 million presidential election ballots," said Michael Linden, director of Tax and Budget Policy at the Center for American Progress, reminding us of the American public litmus test that this particular prioritizing of values had already undergone in November. "And they declined to do so," he continued, "It will come as a shock only to Rep. Ryan when Americans once again reject this approach."

UPDATE: Statements from Lauren Asher and Michael Linden were not present in this post at the time this piece was originally published.

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