Summer Sale! Get unlimited digital access for 13 weeks for $13.
News Opinion Op-Eds

The peril of cutting Pell Grants

For much of the early history of the U.S., college was only for a small segment of society, the elite. As the need for more practical education and broader access to higher education became apparent if the United States was going to fully develop its engineering and agricultural sectors to outcompete the rest of the world, the federal government passed the Morrill Act of 1862, which promoted the development of land grant universities in each state. That, of course, has paid enormous dividends. The research technology that came out of these institutions built America as we know it today.

After World War II, educational access was broadened dramatically through a generous GI Bill for returning veterans. The payoff from that program is well documented. The Basic Educational Opportunity Grant (now called the Pell Grant) was initiated in the early 1970s with a goal of making college attainable for many students like me, who could not have afforded to go to college without such assistance. Discussions are now underway in Washington to drastically cut this program, thereby closing the door to higher education for scores of students. Funding reductions in the Pell Grant program will result in many deserving lower-income students not being able to achieve middle class status and will have huge implications for the standard of living of the entire nation.

Last year, institutions of higher education in the United States enrolled some 18 million students who were pursuing a two-year or four-year degree. About two-thirds of these students received some type of financial aid.

The federal government plays the predominant role in providing these students with financial aid, virtually all of which is based on demonstrated financial need. The College Board estimates that the federal government accounts for nearly 75 percent of the total aid received by undergraduates in the form of grants, loans, work study and tax subsidies. Hence, any decision to reduce federal aid as a result of federal budget negotiations will have a significant and chilling effect on millions of college students throughout the U.S.

It is unfathomable that the United States will be cutting off access to a college degree for the great majority of poor students in college today, especially at a time when we have dropped in international rankings of degree attainment. Because lower income students complete college at only a small fraction of the rate of higher income students, we must move many more of these students successfully through the educational pipeline if we are going to regain our status in international competition. Reductions in the Pell Grant program would obviously have a significant negative impact on this goal.

The Pell Grant program provides a maximum of $5,500 per year to students who are coming from families who are living at or below the poverty line. Interestingly enough, the overwhelming majority of these students are white. In fact, 46 percent of Pell Grant recipients are white, while 24 percent are black and 20 percent are Hispanic.

At Morgan State University alone, the impact of the program has been tremendous. During the past 12 months, 4,333 Morgan students received some degree of Pell Grant assistance. That is more than half of our total student enrollment, students already trying to better themselves while struggling against the odds to make ends meet. Over one third of these students receive the maximum amount of the grant because they are coming from families living at or below the poverty level.

When the program was first introduced in the early 1970s, it covered the majority of educational costs incurred by the typical undergraduate student. As recently as 1990, the maximum Pell Grant still covered 60 percent of the cost of attendance. Today, the maximum grant pays for only about 30 percent of the average total cost. Students must take out loans to cover the remaining expenses. For many families hardest hit by the economic recession, who have either lost their jobs or had their homes foreclosed on, it has become quite difficult to qualify for a loan. Unfortunately, these students will have very few options if there is a major reduction in the Pell Grant program.

David Wilson is president of Morgan State University. His email is

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Schaller fails to see danger of U.S. debt

    Columnist Thomas F. Schaller's analysis is incredibly myopic ("Avoiding Europe's austerity nightmare," April 18). To compare the economic condition of the U.S. to those of Greece or Spain at the beginning of the economic crisis is comparing apples and oranges.

  • Military spending is misplaced U.S. priority

    On April 17, I will be protesting war taxes at Baltimore's main post office. I realize that taxes fund many good programs — education, environment and diplomacy. But sadly when 57 percent of the federal budget goes to the Pentagon, the government's priorities are out of touch with the pressing...

  • A better budget remedy than the Buffett rule

    You end your editorial on the Buffett Rule ("The Buffett Rule backlash," April 13) with the question, "Where will the $50 billion come from to balance the budget, if not from this minimum tax plan?"

  • Skeptical of Buffett and need for higher taxes

    First, I'm an 80-year-old living on Social Security, and I know all the tax loopholes need to be closed ("The Buffett Rule backlash," April 13). But isn't it correct that Warren Buffett owes the IRS a great deal of taxes for a number of years? Let's have a true picture of Mr. Buffett.

  • The Buffett Rule backlash

    The Buffett Rule backlash

    Our view: Taxing the wealthy at rates others already face wouldn't solve the nation's deficit, but it would restore a modicum of fairness to the tax code

  • Godless Republicans turn back on poor and sick

    Some churchmen take exception to some of President Barack Obama's positions on matters of faith. I suggest these men of faith take a closer look at the true meaning of religion. All three Abrahamic religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — have as their central theme the commandments to protect...