Cut BP aid, not Pell Grants! students demand

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Student activists and advocates say congressional lawmakers need to get their budget priorities straight especially when it comes to making cuts to federal funding for higher education.

Representatives in Washington D.C. should consider closing tax loopholes and subsidies for multimillionaires and corporations, rather than balancing the federal budget on the backs of college students and their families, they add.

Rich Williams, a higher education advocate with Illinois Public Interest Research Group, told a March 4 teleconference the spending resolution recently passed by the House of Representatives, which aims to make deep cuts to the Pell Grant, is disappointing and unacceptable.

"The Pell Grants are the federal government's cornerstone financial aid program that 9.4 million college students rely on each year to pay for the college courses that are fueling our recovering workforce and economy," he said.

"Tough choices are supposed to come only after the easy ones. It's difficult to imagine how cuts to Pell Grants happen before cuts to BP and Goldman Sachs. And yet that's exactly what the House resolution does."

In Illinois, eleven Republican representatives voted for HR 1, the spending proposal that would cut 5.7 billion out of the Pell Grant program.

The cuts slash the maximum award a student can receive by $845, a little more than 15 percent, for the students who can afford it the least.

Next school year, a student currently receiving the $5,550 maximum award would see their financial aid dropped to $4,705. More than 1.7 million students would lose access to their grants entirely.

In Illinois, 392,000 students will receive a Pell Grant next year. However should the House spending plan become law, Illinois would lose $243 million in Pell funding, going from $1.2 billion to $962 million. Up to 70,000 students in the state could lose their grant entirely.

Also on the phone was Nicholas Tidd, a freshman and student activist at Truman Community College in Chicago, where he is studying to become an elementary school teacher.

Tidd says he has years of experience working with young children during summer and after school programs as a tutor and mentor. Becoming a teacher is a career he is extremely passionate about. "I want to be the leader in front of the classroom," he said.

Tidd, a full-time student is also a full-time worker. He currently receives the maximum Pell Grant to help pay for his education.

Yet without federal aid he would not be able to afford college, he says.

"I really hope no cuts are made to the Pell," he said. Receiving federally funded financial aid really helps him have faith in government, says Tidd.

"It has motivated me and encourages me to have a stronger commitment to give back to my community. It's an empowering feeling knowing that the government supports my goals to become a teacher."

But if the U.S. Senate passes education cuts Tidd says it would make him, and millions of others feel, as though their dreams are unimportant.

Millions of these students are all ready at the tipping point and many would be forced to drop out of school, says Williams. Education drives economic growth and 85 percent of the fastest growing jobs in America require a college education, he adds.

During this current Wall Street-caused economic crisis 43 states have already made drastic cuts to higher education.

Williams and Tidd are urging Illinois' U.S. Senators, Richard Durbin, a Democrat, and Mark Kirk, a Republican, to vote against any budget extension that includes cuts to Pell Grants.

"We have to let our senators know that education funding is a priority and we urge supporters to call and write their lawmakers," said Williams.

The Senate will most likely bring these cuts to a vote during the next couple of weeks and we need to make sure that our elected officials protect the Pell Grants and make decisions that invest in higher education, he said.

Photo: Students at the University of Illinois at Chicago walk to and from class. Pepe Lozano/PW.

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