Annette John-Hall: Romney would undercut lifeline to college students

Miss USA Olivia Culpo waits to pose for a Facebook photo with students at Rock the Vote tent at CCP.
Miss USA Olivia Culpo waits to pose for a Facebook photo with students at Rock the Vote tent at CCP. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 29, 2012

Sallie Mae may be a low-interest kind of gal, but she's nothing if not persistent. And she wants her money every month.

If you're the loan-poor parent of a college student, you know what I'm talking about.

College tuition has skyrocketed since 1985 and become downright unaffordable for most American households, whether they belong to the 47 percent or not.

For families in the lowest income group, college is the second-largest expense, pricing out plenty of would-be students - you know, the ones Mitt Romney claims don't take responsibility for their own lives.

It doesn't take a Ph.D. to know that higher education is the surest road to self-sufficiency. But apparently Romney doesn't see the value of college for everyone, judging from the policies he and running mate Paul Ryan espouse.

They want to cut the Federal Pell Grant Program - the same one President Obama increased - by $200 billion, which would make college out of reach for more than one million students.

If that happens, what is a cash-strapped kid to do? Sit college out?

Here's Romney's brilliant idea: "We've always encouraged young people. Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education," he told Iowa voters in April. "Borrow money if you have to from your parents. ..."

Excuse me?

No money to lend

In the real world, in-state tuition and fees for a four-year university run close to 20 grand a year, if not more. Most parents just don't have it like that.

"Not everybody has parents who have money to lend," said the president recently. He, along with first lady Michelle Obama, relied on Pell grants to get through college. "That may be news to some folks, but it's the truth."

Not surprisingly, the issue of Pell grants was front and center at Wednesday's Rock the Vote event at Community College of Philadelphia - that, plus registering to vote and voter IDs.

Advocate for colleges

Not only do recently released Pew Research Center poll numbers show the president leading Romney by 61 percent to 31 percent among voters 18 to 29, but President Obama has been a big advocate for community colleges, investing $2 billion to strengthen them.

Almost half of CCP's students are city residents who need the Pell lifeline to pay at least a portion of their tuition and fees, which can total as much as $7,000 a year.

"The group most affected [by the potential loss of funding] are community college students," CCP president Stephen M. Curtis said. "That's why we see this as a civic-engagement type of agenda. . . . What are the things students can do to affect their futures?"

The campus buzzed with civic activity Wednesday. Students stood in line to exchange their old ID cards for new ones with two-year expiration dates - so they could use them to vote under the state's new voter-ID law being fought out in court.

Other students lined up at the "Save Pell" booth to make one-minute videos sharing Pell grant stories that they intended to send to lawmakers in Washington, urging them to retain the much-needed program.

"The Pell grant is my means of going to school," said Mirra Watkins, a second-year CCP student from University City.

Watkins, 20 and a student ambassador, hopes to transfer to either Bryn Mawr or Penn next year. She receives a grant of about $2,500 a semester, which covers her tuition "with a little left over for books."

Watkins, the daughter of a single mother, doesn't think of the money as a handout, as Romney would have us believe, but as an opportunity.

If not for the grant, "I wouldn't be able to go to school, because my mom can't help me," the aspiring publisher says. "And nowadays, you need a higher education to get a better job. . . . You need the Pell grant to make the first step to reach your goal."


Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com or on Twitter @Annettejh.

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