Bill would increase grant amounts

by Tracy Ellingson

Sen. Paul Wellstone says he hopes to buck the trend of the last two decades and provide students with the maximum amount of money authorized for the federal Pell Grant program.
Wellstone introduced legislation in the Senate this week that would increase the maximum Pell Grant award available to qualifying students from the current $2,700 to $5,000 for the 1997-98 fiscal year. However, even if Congress authorizes Wellstone’s request, the actual amount likely won’t exceed much more than $3,000.
Each year Congress authorizes a maximum amount of money to be allocated per student under the grant program. But when it comes time to allocate the money later in the year, legislators usually reduce the authorized amount. The final amount is generally a couple hundred dollars more than the previous year. The authorized amount for this school year was $4,500 before reduced to its current level.
Congress has not met its own authorized amount since 1979-80, though actual grant amounts have shown slow increases. However, during 1993-94, Congress cut Pell Grants by $100 per recipient.
In a telephone press conference Wednesday, Wellstone discussed his bill with leaders from several Minnesota colleges and universities, including Tom Etten, a special assistant of Institutional Relations at the University.
“(The Pell Grant) is key to students in Minnesota and around the country,” said Wellstone. “I’m going to push (the legislation) as hard and as long and as far as possible.”
Wellstone said he hopes to pay for the proposed increase by reducing the defense budget. President Clinton proposed $254.4 billion in defense spending for the next fiscal year; however, many conservatives in the Republican-controlled Congress have called for an increase of about $13 billion more than Clinton’s amount.
The grant is dispersed to students either as a direct payment or as a credit to their school accounts. The funds, which do not have to be repaid, can be used for tuition, books, or any living cost. The grant is meant to supplement students’ and their families’ contribution, not to replace it.
In recent years the grant has been less effective in meeting students’ financial needs than in the past. When adjusted for inflation, the value of a maximum award has declined by 65 percent since 1980, and the proportion of college costs covered by Pell Grants has fallen from nearly one-half to about one-fifth during the same period.
Wellstone said the program is perhaps the best way of helping students survive while in college.
“(The Pell Grant) has been enormously successful,” Wellstone said. “We’re looking at something that has worked. We’re not looking at some overly centralized, bureaucratic program that has not led to tremendous amount of educational opportunity for (students).”
All discussion participants who spoke during the meeting expressed their approval and appreciation for the senator’s proposal.
“Increases in the Pell program appear to me to be the only way that we are going to tackle what seems to me to be an increasing problem of enlarging the gap between those students who can afford to go to higher education and those who can’t,” said Susan Cole, president of Metropolitan State University.
With the full increase, Wellstone said that students from both lower- and middle-income families would benefit because students are eligible for the grant based on a Congress-designed formula that determines how much money their family contributes to their education. The formula takes into account family income, number of dependents, the number of family members currently attending college and other assets.
If the calculated number falls below the maximum Pell Grant amount, the student is eligible for the grant.
Etten, who said he supported Wellstone’s overall proposal, expressed a concern with the senator’s emphasis on aid to lower income students.
“The University of Minnesota is kind of a unique institution state-wide,” Etten said, “because we serve and service students from all economic strata. We don’t want to look like we’re picking and choosing one group of students over another.”