Amid debt-ceiling cuts, good news for Pell grants.

Medill News ServiceAugust 1, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The deal to raise the debt ceiling includes a $17 billion increase in spending for so-called Pell grants, scholarships for low-income college students, and it would protect the program from cuts until 2013.

But the agreement would eliminate federally subsidized student loans for graduate and professional students, something that could affect the cost of education for an estimated 6 million students seeking advanced degrees.

More than 19 million undergraduate students are eligible for Pell grants in the coming academic year, according to federal statistics. The average grant is $5,500.

Just how many graduate students receive federal subsidized loans is less certain. Of the country's more than 18 million graduate students, 35.5 percent received federally subsidized loans during the 2007-08 academic year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the most recent year for which statistics were available.

Victor Sanchez, the president of the U.S. Student Association, called the inclusion of the Pell funding in the debt deal "bittersweet," noting that it came at the expense of graduate student subsidies and other grants such as Pell grants for summer programs, which were cut in appropriations negotiations earlier this year.

"We're very glad that the Pell grant is going to be preserved, but there's really more at stake," Sanchez said. "In regards to this economy and moving forward, investments in education are needed. Engagement is more important now than ever."

Pell grant advocates warned that they could face another battle for funding in 2013.

"People shouldn't say Pell is safe. It's not," said Amy Wilkins, vice president of the Education Trust, an group that advocates for greater assistance to low-income and minority students.

While the agreement protects Pell grants from any automatic cuts that would be imposed should a specially formed congressional committee fail to agree on $1.5 trillion in future budget reductions, funding for other federal education-assistance programs, such as Perkins subsidized loans available to low-income students, would be dependent on future appropriations bills.

"We have our work cut out for us this fall," said Tony Pals, a spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. "While the budget deal provides short-term stability for the Pell program, all student aid programs continue to face long-term uncertainty."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education declined to comment on the impact of the debt ceiling bill until Congress has passed the legislation.

(Levy is a graduate student in the Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.)

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