Wednesday, February 14
Earlier this month, the political equivalent of a solar eclipse took place. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and President George W. Bush put aside their partisan differences and almost agreed on something important: student financial aid. Kennedy called Bush’s 2008 budget for education a “welcome development”–the president advocates raising the maximum annual Pell Grant for low-income college students to $5,400 by 2012, while Kennedy’s proposes to do so by 2009. Washingtonians looked to the darkened sky in awe; maybe this is what bipartisanship looks like.
But, like any eclipse, a long look at the president’s 2008 budget turns a rare, beautiful event into a headache. The last time Kennedy and Bush bridged the partisan divide was when the president proposed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, promising to reform the education system. Their cross-party alliance collapsed when the administration refused to fully fund the law. And history seems to have repeated itself: In order to fund the Pell Grant program in 2008, the president wants to cut more than $1 billion from other student aid programs.
This time, Bush’s alliance with the Massachusetts senator came crashing down in less than two weeks. “We should reject his proposal to cut [student aid] programs, which low-income students depend on” Kennedy said Tuesday.
One such program, the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG), which provides more than $880 million in aid to low-income students nationwide, would disappear entirely under Bush’s budget. According to a recent study by the American Council on Education, this would mean that more than one million students who are currently receiving assistance from the SEOG program would receive less financial aid next year, in some cases losing more than $3,000.
“Every presidential budget, regardless of party, contains at least one bad idea” said the council’s senior vice president Terry Hartle, in an interview with Inside Higher Education. “For 2008, it’s eliminating SEOG.”
The Bush administration is trying to spin this policy as an example of its newfound commitment to fiscal responsibility, arguing that the SEOG program is wasting taxpayer money by subsidizing students who attend expensive universities.
The president’s solution is to encourage these low-income students to attend cheaper community colleges instead of more prestigious–and more expensive–four-year universities. By eliminating the SEOG program, which targets its aid to students who want to attend these universities, Bush would relegate low-income students to community colleges in the name of thrift.
Cindy Brown, director of education policy at the Center for American Progress, predicted that Bush’s education plan will widen the already glaring inequalities in access to higher education. Under the Bush plan, Brown told Campus Progress, “fully prepared low-income high school students are channeled to lesser quality institutions, if they are able to pursue their educations at all.”