A new study from Georgetown University puts the current debt-reduction squabbles in stark relief: By 2018, our economy is already going to be short an estimated 3 million college-educated workers.
In the wake of this news, how are some members of Congress proposing to get our economy back on track? By decimating the Federal Pell Grant Program, which has long been the only pathway millions of Americans have had to be able to afford to attend college and earn their way into the middle class.
This makes no sense at all. It’s like a farmer eating his seed corn. And as anyone who makes a living tilling soil will explain, farmers who do that don’t last very long. Neither do nations.
Over the past 30 years, college costs have skyrocketed, increasing four times faster than the rate of inflation and twice as fast as healthcare costs. As a result, the Pell Grant’s buying power has diminished considerably. Today, the maximum award covers only about a third of the average cost to attend a public university.
Still, Pell is a critical piece of the college affordability puzzle for nearly 10 million Americans — from recent high school graduates to older workers who lost their jobs in the economic downturn. These folks are eager to earn a family-sustaining wage and to contribute to our society. For many, this support literally makes the difference between being able to pursue higher education, or not.
That’s why it’s so disturbing to see our elected officials, under the guise of economic austerity, place a huge target on the backs of hard-working college students across the country. Over the past few weeks, a broad coalition of education, business, and youth organizations have joined forces with concerned citizens across the nation to Save Pell. The campaign launches on July 25 with an online day of action to encourage President Obama and Congress to protect Pell funding in these debt-ceiling negotiations.
If we allow our leaders in Washington to slash students’ grants or cut some of them out of the program entirely, fewer and fewer families will be able to afford to send their children to college. That, of course, will be a devastating blow for both parents and their children. These young people have buckled down, followed all the rules, and gotten themselves into college. Now, they risk having the door of opportunity slammed in their faces because Congress decided they were no longer worthy of investment.
But cuts in Pell also will mean that the gap between the highly skilled workers we need, to help our economy rebound, and the workers we produce will be larger. That hurts all of us.
If our economy is going to thrive over the long term, we need to tend to the harvest. Protecting Pell Grant funding is one of the surest steps Congress and the White House can take to increase our yield.