For years, the Pell Grant program has received broad bipartisan support. But now, tremendous growth in the federal student-aid program at a time when politicians are looking for ways to trim the budget is leading to ramped up rhetoric.
Among the most volatile criticism is coming from Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. Last week, he compared Pell Grants to "welfare" in a radio interview and questioned doling out money with no requirement for graduation.
(See story and link to the interview in the Huffington Post.)
President Obama's fiscal 2012 budget requests $41 billion for Pell Grants to help an anticipated 9.6 million students. To sustain the growing program, the administration proposes ending year-round Pell awards, although that has also generated criticism from Democrats.
The House GOP solution was to cut the maximum $5,550 Pell by $845, but that idea was rejected by the Senate. Now, as with many federal programs, the fate of Pell funding is up in the air until Congress reaches an agreement on the budget.
The Pell Grant program, which started in 1973, has helped millions of low-income students attend college. The majority of awards go to those with family incomes under $30,000.
As with most loan and scholarships, the Pell Grant is about providing access to higher education. Tying aid to completion would be a challenge.
Just 28 percent of students who pursue an associate's degree earn one in three years or less, and 56 percent of those seeking a bachelor's degree complete it in six years or less, according to the College Board.
In this political climate, the push to link aid with college completion is sure to be raised again as an issue.