Pell grants debuted as optional, now are essential

Published 11:59 pm Saturday, February 19, 2011

OXFORD — “What we have is a big implausible ramshackle house, distorted by random additions, by corridors that go nowhere and rooms that don’t connect, a house loosely expanded through the years for numberless children, most of them unexpected. There was no family planning. There was no architect.”

That paragraph was written by Associated Press correspondent Saul Pett 30 years ago. It was part of an 8,500-word feature story on the size and scope of the federal government. The article won a Pulitzer Prize for Pett. Sadly, the warnings and admonitions it contained have been ignored.

Pett wrote the article after the new president, Ronald Reagan, said he was going to do what his predecessors — back to John F. Kennedy — had failed to do. Reagan was going to put the brakes on Uncle Sam by golly. A fact that also had the nation’s attention was the national debt topped $1 trillion for the first time. A chorus erupted. “Ridiculous, outrageous, unsustainable.” Something simply had to be done. Nothing was.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Today there’s 14 times as much red ink than in 1981. And under President Barack Obama’s 10-year plan — yes, that austere plan with “cuts” we’re hearing about — the debt will grow by another $13 trillion before 2022.

That’s right. For all the pledging to get serious and all the wails about the effects of downsizing, what Washington is talking about is merely slowing the rate of increase in what we owe. Even Tea Partiers aren’t talking about actually paying down the debt.

This year the federal government is borrowing 40 cents of every dollar it spends. We’re like a family that has been earning $60,000 and spending $100,000 year after year after year. Suffice it to say the hole is deep.

We at least need to understand how we reached this point. Pett thought so. Contrary to all the blather since the president released his fiscal plan, the forces in play through the decades have not been liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, generous or stingy or anything else.

Governments expand. That’s what they do. Absent constant vigilance, it is the nature of the beast.

Just one program — Pell Grants — illustrates the phenomenon.

Until 1944, there was no government program to provide direct financial aid to students. Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill of Rights that year. Who could be against helping pay for higher education of those who’d served in World War II?

Later, when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, winning the initial race to space, Americans started saying educational institutions were failing our nation. We were “behind” and it was in the national interest for us to try to catch up. Indeed, an early federal aid program was called the National Defense Education Act.

Student loan programs were begun in the 1960s. In 1972 (as an amendment to other legislation), something called the Basic Education Opportunity Grant first appeared.

Yes, there had long existed a network centralizing private scholarships. Yes, several states had incentives such as work-study (which is now a federally subsidized program) and bargain rates for public institutions. But the thinking was — as it always is — that the cost would be negligible to create a program under which the poorest of the poor could receive a pittance of taxpayer-funded grants.

In 1980, just before Pett wrote his lengthy lament about how unwieldy federal government had become, Congress immortalized Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., by renaming BEOG in his honor.

Of course, a graph charting Pell spending looks a lot like the Sputnik launch. Straight up. Today, more than one in four college students receives up to $5,550 per year and those who attend year-around can get twice that much. There were 6 million Pell recipients in 2008. The projection is for 9 million in 2012.

Pells do have wrinkles, however. A student can be deemed “independent” of his or her family in many ways. If so, only the student’s income matters. Also, any student who has a child or children is deemed independent — even if the parents are millionaires.

Is Pell a good program? Absolutely. It has provided incalculable benefits to individuals and society.

Can it be eliminated? No. Imagine the effect of eliminating $50 billion from the annual operating funds of community colleges and universities nationwide.

Understand the beast. In words, Obama’s budget pledges to control and limit Pell outlays. In numbers, he means spending will only increase by $500 million per year for the next decade.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail