The College Crisis

It was just about this time of year 35 years ago, when the United States Congress passed into law a peculiarly American idea–every person should have access to a college or university.

That 1972 federal law, initially named Basic Grants and later Pell Grants, has during this one-third of a century awarded more than $100 billion to more than 30 million college-bound students.

Pell Grants represented a significant departure from the earlier higher education acts with money provided directly to moderate-income students for the purpose of tuition, books, and services at the college of their choice.

Pell Grants were initially intended for families whose young people attended college full time. During the decades since, students are beyond the traditional families of the 1950s, 60s, 70s. Many of today’s students have their own families, work part time, are enrolled not only in four-year institutions, but also in two-year or vocational programs.

The Pell Grant program has not only had policy changes throughout the years but politics at the national level have also influenced the awarding of the grants. During the early 1970s and despite President Nixon’s statements in favor of Pell Grants, his Office of Education refused to release the $122 million dollars appropriated by Congress. In the late 1970s, under Presidents Ford and Carter, Pell Grants were at their dollar value peak, covering almost 80% of college costs.

The 1980s and 90s, however, were a different story. Budget tightening by the Reagan administration fell heavily on moderate income college students. Purchasing power fell and with increasing numbers of low income people, Pell Grant eligibility was stretched too thin. In the 1990s President Clinton ordered the largest dollar increase in Pell Grant history, but even that boost left the grants’ purchasing far below its peak in the 1970s.

Both trends and projections verify the difficulty that now faces college students. Throughout America, state support for college assistance has been declining, with public spending per-student, that is FTE, at an all time low.

Public spending shortfalls in education are bad for this country because they effectively both limit college admissions and quality of the school’s offerings. Young people from families who are in the top 20% of incomes receive 80% of college degrees. Those students from families earning in the bottom 20% of incomes will get only 5% of the college degrees. The gap between the poor and the better-off is growing and lack of a college degree is one of the reasons.

Both unemployment rates and earnings data demonstrate the importance of education. Unemployment is three times higher for those who drop out of high school than it is for those with a bachelor’s degree. Median earning for those with a master,s degree is $62,000 per year in America; it is half of that for those who only finish high school.

An obvious difficulty for today’s college students is student loan debt–it is a crushing burden on the shoulders of today’s students and tomorrow’s professionals. More than 30 years ago, Pell Grants were created precisely to help moderate income families pay for their student,s college costs. For a number of reasons, including the lack of political will on the part of presidents and the Congress, the purchasing power of Pell Grants has fallen by two-thirds and so our students have no choice but to accept the burdening loans.

President Bush and the next Congress could begin to dramatically change the reliance on loans by significantly increasing Pell Grants, which as the name says, are grants–not loans. For the price of just two weeks of the cost of Iraq, they could almost double the Pell Grant program and free up our college graduates to spend their incomes in ways that improve both their lives and the economy.

PAT WILLIAMS served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at The University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West.



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Pat Williams served 18 years as Montana’s Congressman. He now lives in Missoula where he teaches at the University of Montana.

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