A college education transformed my life, as it has for tens of millions of other Americans. Now, my Republican congressional colleagues, many of whom received the same financial help that I did, want to slam the doors to college on deserving students of our own time.
I passionately disagree. Each generation of Americans has sacrificed so that its children could have a better future than their own.
As a parent, I learned how difficult finding the money for a child’s college can be. Now, I am honored to serve on Morgan State University’s Board of Regents, where more than 4,100 students are receiving Pell Grants this school year.
These experiences are why it was so gratifying for me during the last Congress to do my part in increasing the maximum federal Pell Grant scholarship for deserving students to $5,500.
Now, I am acutely concerned that these same students (most, but not all, young) may not be able to complete their college education because some in Congress have decided that the Pell Grant program is too expensive for our nation to afford.
Rather, these reactionaries have decided America’s billionaires, Big Oil and international corporations should receive tax breaks while brilliant young people from our communities see their futures destroyed. That view is not only morally unacceptable, it is foolhardy.
We all have a personal interest in assuring that the 5.4 million college and vocational students nationally who qualified for Pell Grants this year are able to become the well-educated, productive, and tax-paying citizens who will preserve America’s position in the world.
Economic experts at Georgetown University have informed us that, by 2018, the United States will need 22 million new workers with college degrees. Yet, even with the current level of federal student aid, we will be hard pressed to meet our high-technology economy’s growing needs.
Federal Pell Grants are also a core initiative supporting the American value of universal upward mobility. For decades now, college has been the most available and effective bridge to the middle class for millions of our countrymen and women.
In 1970, only about one-quarter of the middle class had attended college. By 2007, that percentage had increased to more than six out of every 10.
I share these observations because the American people need to know that one of our principal bridges to the future is under attack.
If the Republican budget-cutters succeed, more than $5.7 billion will be cut from the Pell Grant funding available to needy college students next year.
The maximum scholarship would be cut by $845 and 1.7 million current scholarship students would receive nothing at all. Since a rapidly increasing number of students are seeking financial help during these troubled economic times, most grant recipients would receive less funding if the Republican plan prevails.
For America to remain competitive during this 21st century information age, now is the time for us to be building bridges to the future, not tearing them down.
We should be increasing the financial help that we provide to deserving students, not throwing them under the budget bus. To meet this challenge, however, parents, students, educators and elected officials alike must all remain engaged in this nation’s budget debates.
We must continue to make the case that, even with increased federal financial aid, paying for college and the bridge to the future that America needs is becoming increasingly difficult.
In 1979, the maximum Pell Grant paid for about three-fourths of the total cost of attending one of our four-year public universities. Today, the maximum award covers only about one-third of the cost.
As President Muriel Howard of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities has observed, we also must realistically address the Washington budget debates if we hope to minimize the negative impact on students.
Even as I write, our historically Black colleges and universities are hard at work providing the Congress with essential information that will allow the Pell Grant Program to become even more efficient and effective.
Above all, we must never allow our legislators to forget that the greatest threat to our national security is our failure to adequately educate our next generation.
As President Obama once observed in a different, but comparable, context, “It’s all about what kind of America we want to be.”
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.