Pell Grant promises

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PRESIDENT Bush has made a commendable commitment to the federal Pell Grant program, which helps lower-income students attend college. In a speech in Florida last week, he pledged to eliminate the program's current $4 billion deficit and increase the maximum grant by $100 for each of the next five years. But it's not clear that the increased costs can be paid for by potential savings suggested in the president's sketchy proposal. And Mr. Bush will really need to push Congress to help him make good on his promises.

As more high school graduates pursue a postsecondary education, particularly in a bad economy, demand for the Pell Grant program has grown. Since 2000, more than a million students have been added to the rolls - for an expected total of 5.2 million students by September 2005. The enormous expansion has created a $4.3 billion deficit in the $12 billion program.

Mr. Bush thinks that enough savings can be wrung out of the student loan program, by making it more "effective and efficient," to eliminate the Pell Grant deficit. The administration suggests that can be done by reducing the government's subsidies to banks and other private lenders that actually provide the loans, among other possibilities.

As usual, the devil is surely in the details, which should be revealed when the administration's budget is presented early next month. But Mr. Bush spoke confidently last week that enough costs can be shaved from the loan program to guarantee that the maximum Pell Grant will increase from $4,050 to $4,550 in five years.

Considering that during Mr. Bush's 2000 campaign he proposed raising the maximum grant to $5,100, but did not follow through; considering that college costs are increasing at a much faster rate than the cost of living; and considering that, just last month, the Department of Education updated income-eligibility standards for Pell Grants that could knock close to 90,000 students off the rolls and reduce grants to about 1.3 million other students, Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy is right to caution families with kids applying to college to "not count their chickens before they hatch." But if Mr. Bush puts some meat on his proposal and uses some political muscle to push it through Congress, he will have done much to maintain the reality of the Pell Grant promise.

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