Tea Partiers Call For Pell Grants Cuts

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Robert Siegel talks with Jeff Selingo, editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, about why the federal Pell Grant program, aimed at helping students pay for college, has become a hot-button issue in the debt ceiling debate.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel. The debt ceiling negotiations deal in huge quantities of federal spending, trillions of dollars over several years. And for the most part, the actual cuts are unspecified and reserved for future debate. But ultimately, it comes down to scaling back or eliminating programs that have commanded support from majorities in Congress in the past. One item that Tea Party Republicans argued for deeper cuts in is the Pell Grant program. That's an unusual position for a program that helps poor students go to college, a policy aim widely shared in Congress. Jeff Selingo is the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education. He's been following this issue. Mr. Selingo, are Pell Grants in jeopardy?

JEFF SELINGO: Yes, they are, at least at the level that they currently are right now in law, which is about 5,550 a year, $5,550 each year is the maximum Pell Grant.

SIEGEL: How big a program is this, the Pell Grant program?

SELINGO: Oh, it's a much larger program than, I think, Congress intended in the 1970s. It's approximately a $35 billion program right now. And the biggest issue over the last decade is that almost every single year it runs a deficit.

SIEGEL: When you say a deficit, it's not as if there's a fixed pool of money that students apply for. However many students qualify can get a Pell Grant, that's the way the program works?

SELINGO: Exactly, it's essentially an entitlement. And so what happens is when money is short, the Education Department borrows against next year's appropriation to maintain the maximum award. And what - Congress often allows those debts to accumulate for a few years before paying them down with an emergency appropriation, and that's essentially what is needed now.

SIEGEL: Now, on a scale from being zeroed out to taking a haircut, what is the likely outcome at this point for Pell Grants?

SELINGO: Likely, it's going to be a haircut at this point. The House version, John Boehner's bill has $17 billion to help the shortfall. The Senate bill has about $18 billion. If neither of those bills pass or they decide not to put any money in for the supplemental appropriation for Pell Grants, it's likely that the maximum grant might have to be shaved a bit, or they're going to have to make other changes to eligibility for the grants.

SIEGEL: A program that benefits disadvantaged students, many say, means that it benefits minority students to a disproportionate extent. Are they likely to be more disadvantaged by a cut in the Pell Grants?

SELINGO: Most likely, yes. I mean, the largest group of students coming down the pipeline, based on demographics, are minority students. And the maximum award goes to students coming from families making under $30,000 a year. The Pell Grant goes up to - you get some sort of Pell Grant up into the low 40s in terms of family income.

SIEGEL: Now, these are grants that go to students, but they very quickly pass through the hands or the bank accounts of the student to the colleges that they're attending. And when you look at the total amounts here, the University of Phoenix, which is a gigantic for-profit, takes in more than $1 billion from Pell Grants.

SELINGO: Yes. It's - the University of Phoenix and other big for-profits, as well as some very big public universities, take in a lot of money from Pell Grants. So this is definitely going to impact them.

SIEGEL: Jeff Selingo, thank you very much for talking with us today.

SELINGO: It's great to be here. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Jeff Selingo, the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, was talking to us about Pell Grants and how they figure in the current budget debates.

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