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RI Congressional Delegation Pledge to Fight for Pell Grant Funding

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


As the federal Pell Grant program stabilizes financially, a debate over its future looms in Washington.

A battle is brewing in Washington over funding for the Federal Pell Grant student aid program and the four members of Rhode Island’s Congressional Delegation all say they’re ready for the fight.

A week after the Congressional Budget Office released a report outlining the financial status of the much-debated student aid program, which had previously been projected to face a $5.7 billion deficit but now appears to be on pace for a surplus, the Ocean State’s four Washington representatives have pledged to do what they can to prevent any further cuts as the debate over the funding of education takes shape in the nation’s capital.

The matter, they say, is key to Rhode Island’s future.

Reed Takes Charge

“In 1972 my predecessor Claiborne Pell authored the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant to provide federal aid to low-income students and families pursuing a college degree,” U.S. Senator Jack Reed said. “Now, more than 40 years later, Pell Grants have opened the doors to a college education for millions of Americans and last year more than 34,000 students in Rhode Island colleges and universities benefited from Pell grants. I am pleased the program ended the year with a budget surplus, but more must be done to ensure Pell grants will be there to help future generations of students.”

Reed, a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education called education a “bedrock for Rhode Island’s economy and our nation’s future competitiveness,” and said he is working to increase the maximum grant for students to $5,635 for the next academic year.

He has also pledged to help keep interest rates low in the federal programs, a key point of debate as the program’s financial feasibility came under suspicion, and says he has been working to ensure the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is “up and running with a director who has oversight on private student loans.”

That last point, in particular, will remain a key stumbling block as Republican members of Congress recently launched a plan to block the appointment of director Richard Cordray in an effort to ensure “key structural changes” are made at the CFPB.

A Call for More Funding

For the past few years, the financial future of the Pell Grant program has been in doubt.

In an effort to keep the program afloat, Congress has changed the eligibility requirements, forcing thousands of students out of the program, ended subsidized loans for graduate students and eliminated grace periods for the loans of undergraduates.

According to reports, those changes have led to a roughly $9.2 billion surplus for the current fiscal year and the estimated deficit of $8.7 billion for the 2015 fiscal year has been slashed down to a much easier to manage $1.4 billion.

U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse says he’ll continue to argue for “robust” funding for the program as it helps ease the “burden” of higher education on middle class families and students.

"With so many Rhode Islanders still feeling the effects of our nation’s economic downturn, Pell Grants are more important than ever,” U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said. “Pell Grants cover an average of only 31 percent of tuition, fees, and room and board for students attending public four-year universities.”

Representative David Cicilline concurs.

“This report is good news for Rhode Island families who rely on the Pell Grant program,” he said. “Access to higher education will be critical to our recovery as a state and as a nation. As we work to put things back on the right track, it is important to ensure that every young person has access to the education that will allow them to enter the workforce successfully or begin a career.”

Gearing up for Battle

Congressman Jim Langevin is less convinced over how the news will be received in Washington as he believes there is “an influential faction in Congress that would rather address our budget challenges with massive cuts to college aid instead of increased revenue from closing tax loopholes that benefit the very wealthy and special interests.”

The program faces a number of key deadlines this year, not the least of which is the ever-changing deadline to raise the country’s debt ceiling. Regardless of how the Pell Grant program currently looks financially, change appears all but inevitable.

In the meantime, Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation pledges to continue fighting for the program’s future.

“We need to address the issue of college affordability in a comprehensive way and I continue to talk with the Obama Administration and my colleagues in Congress about next steps,” Reed said.

“Pell Grants allow thousands of Rhode Islanders to get the skills and education they need to succeed in the jobs of the 21st Century and, as a result, build a workforce that can compete in the global economy,” Langevin said. “We need to continue to fight to make Pell Grants a priority, recognizing that our economy relies on this proven investment in our future.” 


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