Bye Bye Pell Grants, Hello Even More Student Loan Debt

Congressional Republicans sure have a hard time with math. In the most recent House budget, they included massive cuts to the Pell Grant program, which allows millions of students each year to better afford a college education, all in the name of fiscal responsibility. We can’t afford it, they say. It’s a sign of how quickly things change, I guess, that we suddenly can’t afford a $27 billion program when just last December they said a $1,900 billion tax handout to millionaires and corporations wouldn’t be a problem. I’m no mathematician, but those numbers don’t add up.
What does add up, however, is the benefit a college degree accrues over a person’s lifetime. A report by Georgetown University found that the average person with a bachelor’s degree earns $2.27 million throughout their lifetime, while someone with just a high school diploma earns $1.3 million during the same timeframe. The impact of this extra million dollars cannot be overstated. It is home ownership and a good quality of life instead of living paycheck to paycheck. But with the cost of a college degree exploding in recent years, this is becoming a less and less realistic path for many young Americans, even with Pell Grants providing some financial assistance.
These prospective cuts to the Pell Grant program couldn’t have come at a worse time.Nearly 10 years after the last financial crisis, we are on the verge of another financial crisis, this time in the form of a student loan debt bubble. Student loan debt has risen 130% since 2008, and now makes up 42% of all consumer debt. In fact, last quarter, financial loan debt surpassed credit card and medical debt, and is now second only to mortgage debt, the cause of the last recession 10 years ago. This situation is so serious that Trump-appointed Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Jerome Powell warned that the increasing the national student loan debt, which is already at $1.5 trillion, will soon begin to stifle growth.
For a country that touts access to opportunities as one of our founding principles, reducing the Pell Grant program seems profoundly un-American. Scholarships and grants are one of the only ways for students to attend institutions of higher education without accruing massive amounts of debt. The only other options are to be born well-off, or to work your way through school, only enrolling for courses you can pay for up front. The former is not an option for the vast majority of prospective students, and the latter is impractical and timely, not to mention a virtual impossibility for many because of the absurdly low federal minimum wage. A four year degree turns into a 6 or 8 year degree, and along the way working students will not have the same ability to intern or be active on campus and in their community.
There are few things that more Americans agree on than the need for a better, available and accessible education system. Congressional Republicans’ efforts to make college even less affordable make no sense when considered in the lens of public service, but make all the sense in the world when you consider their real goal as legislators. Billionaire donors have little interest in making college more affordable, and Republicans have already proven to be fundamentally against funding the education of those who cannot afford it on their own. This is one of the reasons why people with student loan debt still do not have access to bankruptcy courts. Republicans’ message is that working class people who want an education should either find a way to become wealthy, or have their lives ruined forever by onerous student loans.
Republicans in Congress already stole from our future with last year’s $1.9 trillion tax bill– we can’t let them do it again. The Pell Grant program needs to be protected, and any member of Congress who votes to cut it should be held accountable in November.

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