SOUTH KINGSTOWN—Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse visited the University of Rhode Island on Friday to listen to students’ concerns about further cuts to Pell Grant funding for the next school year.
Whitehouse recently introduced a resolution in the Senate defending the Pell Grant and discouraging any cuts to the program. The bill is co-sponsored by Senators Jack Reed (D-RI), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Al Franken (D-MN), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).
“We need to make it clear that we are going to stand up for our kids,” said Whitehouse. “I’ve met with students across Rhode Island who rely on Pell Grants to help them achieve the dream of a college education. This resolution sends a message that we will fight for those students and protect this vital program from irresponsible cuts.”
“We have a very significant budget problem, and there will have to be substantial cuts in various areas,” he added. “The desire to cut [Pell Grants] is very real, and I am trying to discourage Pell Grants being a part of that cut as much as I can.”
In the past year, House Republicans have introduced legislation which would cut Pell Grant funding by an average of $1,775 per student. The Hill, a congressional newspaper which publishes daily when Congress is in session, reported discontent among House conservatives when Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) introduced a debt bill in July which included $17 billion in supplemental spending for Pell Grants.
Some House Republicans referred to the program as ‘welfare’ and refuted the need for further spending in a bill intended to reduce the country’s budget deficit. Whitehouse visited URI to hear students’ reaction to such comments and to impress on a local level why Pell Grant funding is important.
“Some people consider it welfare, but I consider it an investment,” said Cindy T. Cabrera, a Communication Studies major at URI. “My parents came to the United States in order that their children get an education. It is a dream for me to go to college and I would like to see other students get the same.”
Many students need the Pell grant to fund their college education in order to remain enrolled, and would be forced to drop out if funding were cut. To date, the maximum grant award is $5,550 yearly per student.
“URI gave me the most amount of money, and the Pell Grant is a big part of my tuition,” said Fernanda Ribeiro, a Business major hoping to enroll in URI’s International Business program. “If they do decide to cut it, I will be in trouble.”
Amanda Blau, whose double majoring in Public Administration and Marketing, must participate in internship programs over the summers which are funded by the Pell Grant. If the program loses money due to budget cuts, she will be unable to fulfill the requirements of her degrees.
“I have to do internships over the summer, and Pell Grants help to defer payment,” said Blau. “These internships are required and you are paying full credit. The Pell Grant helps to give that opportunity, and allow students to take more classes that they need.”
Whitehouse also pointed out the pressure that students face coming out of their university careers with a large amount of debt and diminishing career prospects during the current economic downturn. Pell Grants help to ease those debts upon young students.
“Pell Grants lower the debt load, and the United States is coming to $1 trillion in student loan debt,” said Whitehouse. “That is a pretty big blanket of burden to put on people coming out of education and trying to establish themselves.”
Non-traditional students also feel the pressure of performing both in the workplace and the classroom. A college degree is a necessary requisite to obtaining a career position, and more students who rely upon funding such as the Pell Grant start university education later because financially it is impossible at an earlier age.
“I am 29 years old and I have two kids,” said Amber, a student at URI. “I work full-time and go to school full-time, taking care of my family. It would be impossible for me to go to school and working for a degree without the Pell Grant. It is important for us to get as much aid as we can because of tuition increases here at URI.”
“If anything, we need more funding from the Pell Grant, not less,” she added.
Former students of URI who benefited from Pell Grant funding spoke to the opportunity the program availed them, and how it shared a large portion of their current success.
“I serve as Director of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity at URI, and I would not be in this position unless the Pell Grant existed,” said Roxanne Gomes. “Neither of my parents graduated from high school, but I have continued my education via the Pell Grant. I sit here because I am truly a product of the Pell Grant and I certainly do not want to see it diminished.”
The Pell Grant was introduced by former Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell in 1972. Pell envisioned a grant program which helped students from low-income families to pursue college degrees. The number of students receiving Pell Grants has increased by 26 percent in recent years.
As tuition costs and university fees rise, however, Pell Grants have made less of an impact in funding a student’s education. The maximum Pell Grant award today covers 34 percent of the costs for a four-year public university education. Whitehouse noted the stark difference of importance from the program’s inception in 1972 to today.
“When Senator Pell got [Pell Grants] introduced, the program paid about 75 percent of the standard public university tuition at the time,” said Whitehouse. “There was a time that you could have the Pell Grant and maybe a side job, and you would be ok. Now it is a much more complicated situation.”
Whitehouse realizes that, under the current economic decisions, there is a lot of work at the national and local level to protect the Pell Grant program while making inevitable budget cuts. The education which the Pell Grant provides, however, is too important for Rhode Island students to lose.
“My experience in Washington is that everybody has statistics and numbers, but they kind of glaze people over,” said Whitehouse. “The stories of real people who are enjoying a real benefit and whose lives are affected by something count for a lot, and I try to absorb as many of those.”