Elmer Smith: The dumbing-down of America: Cuts in higher-education aid

Posted: May 06, 2011

SOME OF us have been middle class so long, we forgot how we got there.

But if you check with the homeowner next door, you'll find that he or you or both got there with government help.

One of you went to college or learned a trade on the GI Bill or with the aid of federal grants or government-backed student loans. We live in houses we couldn't possibly afford without the mortgage-interest deduction or real-estate-tax write-off.

And, if we are like nine out of 10 Americans, we went to public schools that prepared us to compete on a college level with kids who were born into the circumstances to which we aspired.

I'm not talking about handouts. That's the term some people use to describe the help they got, back before success wiped out their memory banks.

We expanded our middle class over the last two generations because we all kicked in to a common pot to buy the bootstraps we pulled ourselves up by.

It's something to think about as deep cuts to education budgets place us in the path of a perfect storm that threatens to wipe out the higher-education prospects of many poor and working-class families.

Many of them are about to take a huge hit if the cuts to Pell grants, which passed as part of the House budget resolution last month, become law in September.

Pell grants provide up to $5,500 a year for students in income-eligible families. Under the GOP plan passed in the House, the maximum would be reduced to $3,400, and the income-eligibility bar would be raised, pricing thousands out of the college market.

"We're holding our breath," Amy Wilkins, a spokeswoman for the Education Trust, said yesterday. She noted that "1.4 million students would lose it altogether and 10.9 million would lose part of their aid under the resolution that the House passed."

"They keep saying we all must give up something in the name of deficit reduction," Wilkins said. "But Congress just eliminated the summer Pell grants to save $8 billion. So, students have already absorbed their share."

Pell grants have doubled in recent years from $16.1 billion in 2008 to $34.4 billion in 2011. But college enrollments have also soared, from 6.1 million to an estimated 9.6 million over the same period.

The $8 billion savings from eliminating summer Pell grants and about $2 billion from changes in the eligibility formula passed in this year's budget eliminate provisions that just passed in 2010.

But U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Philadelphia, is not ready to concede even those cuts as the battle for the final budget gears up.

"In Philadelphia, 80 percent of the new jobs in our region require a college degree," Fattah said. "We have work to do.

"The big picture is that we have fallen to ninth in the world in the percentage of students finishing four-year degrees. Countries like Portugal are handing out laptops to every kid in the country.

"We're not shadow-boxing here. We're in with real opponents. Much smaller countries outperform us.

"The Obama administration is on the right course. The number of low-income people seeking higher education has grown from 6 million to 9 million.

"The School District of Philadelphia is graduating more kids and sending more to college. These state and federal cuts would rob them of their future.

"The business community is telling us that we either educate them, or they will move their facilities to places where there is an educated work force or use these [foreign-worker] visas to bring in educated immigrants."

Or we can ramp up our efforts to expand our own pool of educated people.

We've done it before. Only 160,000 U.S. citizens were in collge in 1940, according to the U.S. Department of Education. By 1950, there were 500,000 enrolled, 49 percent of them veterans who used the GI Bill.

We added student loans and grants, created and expanded universities, and established community colleges in every major city.

That's how we got here. We didn't just climb the ladder. We built it.

Send email to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: www.philly.com/ElmerSmith.

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