Another good government program: Pell grants

WASHINGTON — The United States used to be among the world’s leaders in educating its citizenry.  After World War II, Americans completed college at higher rates than most other countries as returning soldiers used the GI bill to pay tuition.

My father was among the veterans who completed college with Uncle Sam’s assistance, a beneficiary of a farsighted federal government that understood boosting college attainment was good for the country. That cohort of college boys helped to lead a prolonged period of national prosperity. They fostered educational achievement in their children, who often completed college, as well.

College assistance was also a signal accomplishment of the Eisenhower administration, which spent millions on education after the Soviets launched Sputnik. Among other things, Eisenhower created a loan program to help students pay college costs.

But somewhere along the way, the nation lost its focus on pushing educational achievement. We became complacent while developing nations rightly decided that college attainment would help them achieve economic growth. Just 39 percent of American adults have an associate’s degree or higher, compared with 55 percent for Canada and 54 percent for Japan.

The U.S. now ranks 6th in the percentage of adults ages 18-24 who are enrolled in college — behind, among others, Hungary and Poland.

Even worse, the U.S. ranks 15th in college completion rates, a figure that President Obama cites often and has vowed to improve.

In a speech last year, Obama called the nation’s failure to boost academic achievement a “prescription for economic decline. . . That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

Congress has just made a down payment on that promise. Added to amendments to health care legislation — and largely overshadowed by the spectacle accompanying that debate — a student loan overhaul will add billions in funding for Pell grants, which help pay college costs for about six million students.

“This is an amazing opportunity” to help more students attend college, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

Pell grants, started in 1973, have long been popular and well-used — a significant source of funds for students without the means to pay for college. During the 1970s and ‘80s, the grants, which don’t have to be re-paid, helped many students become the first in their families to obtain four-year college degrees.

But as college costs soared over the last two decades, Pell grants didn’t keep pace. The grants once covered about two-thirds of the costs of a public university; now, they cover only about a third.

Higher-education experts have long pointed to steep costs as one of the reasons that so few students manage to finish college in four or five years. Even community college costs have risen, forcing some students to drop out before they can complete a two-degree.

With the Georgia Legislature threatening budget cuts that could lead to steep tuition increases at the state’s public colleges and universities, those increased Pell grants could help some Georgia students stay in school.

The restoration of Pell grants not only helps prepare a future workforce, but the measure also ameliorates the growing income inequality that threatens to make the U.S. a deeply class-stratified society. By assisting working-class students with college tuition costs, the Pell grants give them the boost that affluent kids get from their well-heeled parents.

Predictably, the student loan overhaul had its critics. The private- lending lobby inundated Capitol Hill with its representatives. Several Republicans and a few Democrats claimed a “government takeover.” It’s nothing of the sort.

In 1965, the federal government wanted to make more student loans available, so it created incentives for private lenders — giving them subsidies and assuming the risks for re-payment. But private lenders abused the process, charging high fees and paying off colleges to steer students their way.

By 1992, when former President Bill Clinton started streamlining the loan program, the federal government was spending $6 billion a year for $15 billion in loans. The new legislation eliminates the subsidies to private lenders, freeing up $9 billion annually for a better use.

That’s change we can believe in.

56 comments Add your comment

Some people are stupid

March 30th, 2010
12:58 pm

This has got to be the stupidest bunch of posters I have ever seen. The people who say pay your way through have obviously not been to a college in the past 20 years. While it may not be a right to go to college,how many successful uneducated people do you know. I mean seriously. I understand how you don’t like government, but tell me this, would you go to an uneducated doctor, what about an uneducated dentist. well guess what, they had to go to school and I guarantee that some of their 200k plus education was at the hands of some federal dollars. I see why conservatives are classified as hillbillies. Even a liberal arts degree has a purpose. Check and see what degrees the teachers at school have. I bet its a BA(Bachelors of Arts).


March 30th, 2010
3:09 pm

Our “institutions of higher learning” giver students scholarships and then jack up the price of tuition an equal amount or get a kickback from the lending institutions. Only in America!


March 30th, 2010
3:39 pm

Really @Some people are stupid???? I graduated 4 yrs ago…paid my way through a private college which was very expensive. It’s not the govt’s job ot make sure that people get educated. If they want to, they can take out private loans, like I did. Yeah it sucks, but it’s my personal responsibility – not the tax payers. The other part of that is the people who recieve those pell grants are minorities and the only qualification is that you can’t be white.

Maybe I should pay for your healthcare too…oh, I guess I am going to be thanks to the administration for that also! It would sure be nice if people would start taking responsibility for themselves!

david kantz

March 30th, 2010
5:49 pm

the end of my 3:19 comment should have been “I’d appreciate the analagous numbers for 2009 and an explanation that brings clarity to how the $9 billion savings is realized.” The latter 2 paragraphs were unfortunately picke up from the post I put up and the Sacramento Bee’s website on March 28.

Sorry about that.


March 30th, 2010
6:30 pm

Ya know…I just can’t help it SPAS (some people are stupid). I just have to reply. The very name you’ve chosen for yourself on this blog shows a level of contempt for other honest opinions. I’m sure you’re an expert on this topic, and others, and will enlighten us with your broad and expansive knowledge and experience so we might acquire just a little of your vast wisdom. I know we all just can’t wait.

But while we do…I really enjoy reading the opinion of others even if I disagree with some of them.

dom youngross

March 31st, 2010
1:42 am

“But somewhere along the way, the nation lost its focus…”

Gee, wonder how that could have happened.

Too bad, so sad for you kids these days.

Goldman Sachs and AIG needed bailing out more than you need your college degrees, so they got theirs. Karzai also needs to have Afghanistan made safe for him for the next 15 years till he retires in splendor to exile, so he got his, for the next 15 years. Highway construction workers with that way-cool pole sign that says STOP on one side and SLOW on the other instead of a college degree need their federally-stimulated jobs for the next three to five. And all of us need our health-care insurance more than you need your college degrees, for the next now-till-whenever years. So the subsidizing well of taxpayer money isn’t just run dry, it’s been run into the trillions red.

Your mama, your daddy, your grandmama, your granddaddy, and a whole lot of other older people not related to you all got into the subsidy line long before you did. Sucks to be you, lo man/lo girl on the totem pole of national priorities, now doesn’t it?

And step further aside citizen kids, we have 11 million illegals to fast-track to citizenship, and that will take some more in-the-red subsidy bucks. How about that, they’re not even here legally and they STILL got ahead of you dummies in the line.

So suck it up kids. Get your college degrees somehow on your own steam and nickel. Get it going already. You’ve got A LOT of federal debt waiting for you to pay off courtesy of your mama, your daddy, your grandmama, your granddaddy, and a whole lot of other older people not even related to you. Slackers.