Monday, November 05, 2012

Presidential Politics and Education Policy: Pell Grants with Consequences

I should preface this whole blog by saying that I am not a scholar of education finance. But since one can hardly talk about education in this election season without talking about the federal budget and the economy, it’s pretty hard to write something about the future of public education following the upcoming election without talking about money. 

When Education Week and Teacher’s College at Columbia University teamed up to host an education debate on October 15th titled “Taking the Election to School: Making Education a Focus of the 2012 Election”, the budget, economy and the role of federal government in education were front and center. The debate featured education advisor to the Romney campaign, Phil Handy, against Obama education advisor, John Schnur; the president of Teachers’ College, Susan Furhman, served as moderator. This debate was a welcome respite from the high profile and very tense presidential and vice-presidential debates, characterized by two collegial men sitting next to each other, clearly at ease with the topics of debate, and respectful of their opponent’s time to talk, never interrupting or talking over the other.

In what followed (you can read the full transcript here), these surrogates provided details about each candidate’s plans for education, which reflected starkly different positions on the role of the federal government in all levels and arenas of education. Teacher’s College provides a bi-partisan summary of the debate that touches on the major issues including Common Core standards, NCLB Waivers, Pell Grants, early childhood education, teaching force.

But, it was the discussion of the Pell grant program was particularly compelling to me because of a point that Handy made at the end. He said, “the one thing we do with Pell grants, for example, is to have a completion requirement.” Using an analogy, he described how a Florida virtual school that offers a course does not get paid until the end of the course when the student is proficient in that course.  “That should be the same with federal programs which allows kids to go to school, not complete school, but still get the money…there’s a much more rigorous criteria that should be, I think, administered as it relates to give out federal money for going to school and not completing a course or completing a program.”

While his words are open to interpretation, this statement seems to support requiring students to complete college in order to keep their Pell grant monies. It implies that if students do not complete, there would be consequences as well (such as having to pay it back). It proposes holding individual students accountable for the spending of federal dollars on education! Indeed, Handy earlier referred to the Pell grant program as accruing “tens of billions” of dollars of “unpaid liability” (because helping low-income students go to college isn't worth it if they don’t become stock brokers and pay 15% tax rates…).  

Let’s backtrack a moment. If you remember, in the first debate, Romney indicated that he does not want to cut spending on education but also indicated that he does not plan to spend more money on education either. During the second town hall style debate, Romney was a little more promising in trying to sway undecided voters by saying “I want to make sure we keep our Pell grant program growing.” And during this particular debate between education advisors, Handy agreed that the Pell grant program is a good thing but given the budget deficit and uncertainty of how Pell will be funded, the program needs to be “radically fixed.”

By putting a system of consequences in place, the amount of money currently invested in the Pell grant program does not have to change. In fact, I’d bet my student loans that if Romney was elected, the federal government will spend less money on Pell. To gain access to higher education through a Pell grant would be a risk for low income students who are already four times less likely to finish college than students who are not low income.

This sort of system reminds me of the welfare drug testing law that was instituted in Florida last year. Attorney to Florida governor Rick Scott said that requiring welfare recipients to take a drug test in order to receive benefits was a “common-sense measure to make sure the purposes of the program are advanced.” The law was proposed to save the state money by eliminating persons from the program who were using benefits for drug use and scaring those who use drugs from applying. A Pell program of consequences would serve to do the same – scare students out of taking Pell money for fear that if they could not finish, they would not be able to pay back the federal government.  While we know now that the Florida law did not work, I still find this strategy of ‘scaring people straight’ quite alarming and contradictory to the goals of the Pell Grant program.

None of the articles I read addressed Handy’s comment (see here, here, here, and here). Perhaps the comment appeared to be given off-handedly in a broader discussion of student debt and college affordability. Or perhaps, and I suspect this is more likely, that no one picked up on this is actually indicative of two campaigns so focused on the middle class that comments like this don’t quite make the radar. Pell Grants are need-based program for poor Americans; in 2010-2011, 58% of Pell Grant recipients dependent on parents for support came from families with incomes of $30,000 or less (College Board, 2012). Yet, both Romney and Obama defined the ‘middle-income’ as households who make less than $250,000, despite the reality that the median income for American households is just over $50,000 and that only 9% of households make over $150,000. Like I said, you just can’t talk about this election without talking about money.

By: Nora Gannon-Slater, a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Psychology (QUERIES division), studies educational evaluation, assessment, and accountability.


Anonymous said...

Nice post. I wonder if there's any other evidence that this is an official policy position? Maybe it will show up from some think tank soon.

Unknown said...

I wouldn't be surprised if there is a position paper being prepared at a Heritage/AEI on this very issue. I think we can make inferences about the actual reason for this policy (Nora alludes to Florida welfare changes), but I am more interested in the expressed reasons for a change like this. Touting accountability for schools is one thing, but for students? Further explanations from organizations promoting this policy should be interesting....