What MN students don't like about proposed Pell changes

Fighting for the Pell

This morning Minnesota student leaders showed reporters a 4,000-plus-signature petition opposing $4.2 billion in proposed cuts to the federal Pell Grant program.

Officers from the Minnesota State College Student Association (MSCSA) and Minnesota State University Student Association (MSUSA) said state Office of Higher Education figures show that proposed changes in eligibility will eliminate more than 13,000 Minnesotans from the program, costing them $76 million in grants.

The cuts could come out of the Congressional “supercommittee” on the federal deficit, which has until Nov. 23 to make $1.5 trillion in cuts to the federal budget. The students said they’re presenting the petition to the Minnesota Congressional delegation.

Amanda Bardonner, state chairwoman of the university student association, said the revisions unfairly target low-income students.

The students’ beef with the changes, according to Bardonner:

  • Redefinition of “untaxed income”

“Currently, only certain forms of untaxed income are considered when determining Pell Grant eligibility. This proposal changes the definition of untaxed income to include means-tested benefits, refundable tax credits and social-security benefits. Including these forms of untaxed income would overestimate how much students and their families can afford to pay for college.”

  • Factoring-in of earned-income tax credit

“Counting the earned-income tax credit against Pell eligibility serves to penalize work, and harms students trying to lift themselves out of poverty. It also eliminates Pell eligibility for those students considered less than half-time. These are often nontraditional students whose class load is limited because of outside circumstances. … Our students are working really hard; 90 percent are holding at least a part-time job, and that (percentage) is possibly even higher at two-year colleges.”

  • Tightening of eligibility

“The last major change raises the minimum eligibility level from 5 percent of the maximum ($272.50) to 10 percent ($550). This means students who currently receive less than $550 will automatically be dropped from the Pell Grant program. This will have a drastic effect on their ability to succeed later in life. … (The money lost) is money the student would otherwise be using to buy a car, house, clothes and other things needed to drive our economy.”

Geoff Dittberner, chairman of the community-and-technical-college student association, called the Pell Grant “disaster relief” for dislocated workers in the wake of an economic catastrophe:

“We need to do better than to give students a choice between not attending school or assuming even greater debt.”

Student leaders say that unlike their parents and grandparents, today’s youths can no longer work enough during summer to pay for college, and part-time jobs don’t help much, either. Many of the higher-paying jobs for students are gone, and college expenses have far outpaced what most students can earn during the summer and academic year.

Dittberner said:

“It’s a different landscape.”

MSCSA spokesman Jonathan Miller said U.S. Rep. John Kline (R-MN) has met with Minnesota student leaders twice this year over the issue. He has been receptive to them, Miller said, but has told them they need to tighten eligibility requirements if they want to avoid further cuts.

Miller told me:

“He’s been as receptive as he can be given the pressure he’s under from his party (to cut spending).”