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Efforts to Save Pell Grants From Cuts Ramp Up

Amid talks over a deal to boost the federal debt ceiling, funding of Pell Grants remains uncertain, and efforts to fend off cuts are intensifying.

Advocates have dubbed July 25 "Save Pell Day" to draw attention to potential reductions in the federal program that gives grants to needy students to attend college. A website dedicated to the cause encourages supporters to send elected officials tweets and emails asking them to fund the $5,550 maximum Pell Grant. The site also asks students to use blogs and Facebook to share information on the potential impact of Pell cuts.

Save Pell is a coalition of civil rights, social justice, education, and youth organizations, including the Education Trust, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the Institute for College Access and Success, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, among others.

The U.S. House of Representatives' Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee has about $18 billion less to allocate to programs in the 2012 fiscal year than in 2011, making the student-aid programs a likely target for spending cuts, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. A hearing slated for Tuesday to consider 2012-13 spending levels for federal student-aid programs has been postponed.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Labor, HHS, and Education Subcommittee is scheduled to discuss the Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Request for the Department of Education with Secretary Arne Duncan on tap as a witness.

A proposal last week by a group of six senators working on debt reduction calls for reducing funding for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education collectively by $70 billion over the next 10 years. My colleagues in the Politics K-12 blog have noted that spending committees would get to decide where that money comes from, but advocates fear there's no way to get to that number without at least making some changes to the Pell Grant program.

Earlier this year, as Congress began debate over the fiscal year 2012 budget, the Republican-controlled House passed a budget resolution that proposed slashing the maximum Pell Grant to $3,040, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office. It would have cut awards for 1.4 million of the nearly 10 million students who qualify for Pell Grants. While the proposal died in the Senate, it sent off alarm bells in the education community and triggered advocacy efforts to bolster the Pell program.

As part of a push to maintain Pell funding, NASFAA has templates for letters to send to congressional representatives and links to its Save Student Aid Facebook campaign.

The Student Aid Alliance is also urging members to protect student aid and has posted opinion pieces from various media outlets in support of the Pell Grant program on its website.

The challenge in maintaining funding for the Pell program is that it has grown to be hugely expensive. The Obama administration's fiscal 2012 budget plan requests $41 billion for Pell Grants.

The combination of more students pursuing degrees and the economic recession has fueled demand for the grants. Pell Grants have always been intended to help those in high need, and most awards today are given to students with household incomes of less than $30,000 a year.

Supporters are lining up in Congress. The Progressive Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking that Pell Grants be removed from the bargaining table in the deficit-reduction discussions. Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn. and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, expressed similar support for the program in a letter to the president last week as well.

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