For low-income students, the battle for their votes may already be decided

DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Posted: August 19, 2012

While many voters consider the economy and jobs the major issues in this presidential election, college student Donald Stewart judges candidates on a different criterion: Their support for his federal Pell Grant.

A Pell Grant provides money for low-income post-secondary students. In the last four years, the number of Pennsylvania students with Pell Grants has grown by 50 percent, according to data of the U.S. Department of Education. For many of them, the grants are essential for earning degrees and launching careers.

The 300,000 or so "Pell students" in Pennsylvania form a significant voting bloc. The battle for their votes, however, would seem to be already decided, if the Community College of Philadelphia is a barometer.

The federal grants fit President Obama's goal that "every child in this nation [should] have the chance to go to college, even if their parents aren't rich." That goal is being met at the CCP, where about 50 percent of the 30,000 students receive Pell money, according to the school's administration.

Mitt Romney, however, is not a fan. The presumptive Republican presidential candidate says the Pell program costs too much and reaches too far. The Pells are part of an "expanding entitlement mentality" and are contributing to the increasing government deficit and the rising tuition fees, Romney said.

To rebalance the educational budget, according to Romney, the financial focus should be on only those students "who need it most," and on helping students make better-informed college choices.

But can the program distinguish between those who need it most and those who don't? According to Stephen Curtis, president of CCP, the grants are almost always a real deal-maker.

"Students here are already at the cheapest college available," he said. "If they didn't get a Pell Grant, they probably wouldn't be able to attend college at all." Tuition and fees at the Community College add up to $2,490 a semester, based on a 13-credit load.

As a consequence, Romney's budgetary austerity can't count on much support at CCP and, for sure, many other colleges.

"Even now there isn't enough money," said Stewart, the CCP student. He received a $5,500 grant and got a part-time job to pay for his college education.

"If I have had some difficulties, sometimes, to pay my bills, how do you think the situation is for a student having a family with two children?" he asked.

His remarks are echoed by John Braxton, a biology professor and co-president of the teachers union.

"Last year I had a student who dropped out of college because of a lack of funding," he said. "She worked during the night, came straight to classes in the morning, and then still had to take care of her family, too. It was too much for her."

It isn't just the students who need the Pell funding. The school needs the grants almost as much. With state and city funding sinking from two-thirds of the school's total revenue in years past to less than 40 percent today, the school leans more and more on students to pay for the college's education. The Pell Grants provide about one-third of CCP's revenue, Curtis said.

Thus there is no doubt in the CCP professors' minds which candidate to support. In the teachers' union's office, there is a poster of President Obama.

"Romney and [vice presidential running mate Paul] Ryan support slashing social services," Braxton said. "With Obama, at the very least, we know that things won't go backward."

But what about the Republican argument that there is no money for Pell Grants?

"It's too convenient to say: 'There's not enough money, so something's got to give,' " Curtis said. "At every level of government, education needs to be a top priority. A society can't move forward if it's not educating its citizenry. It's 'Pay me now, or pay me later.' "


Peter Vanham is a Belgian economist and a fellow of the Pascal Decroos Fund for investigative journalism. He is writing for The Inquirer this summer.

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