Proposed Budget Cuts to Department of Education Have Severe Consequences for Low-Income Students

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The words “elimination” and “reduction” dominate President Donald Trump’s proposal for the U.S. Department of Education’s budget in fiscal year 2018. These cuts are then justified with the most distorted and mendacious of rationales. Up to 11 programs, including Perkins Loans, Subsidized Student Loans, Public Service Loan Forgiveness, and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOGs) are slated to be eliminated. Three additional programs, including Federal Work-Study, are set to be significantly reduced. Overall, the president envisions cutting the department’s budget by $9.2 billion, or 13.5 percent.

The most significant eliminations in financial aid are 1) more than $1 billion in loan subsidies for low-income families, which will force them to pay or absorb the interest on loans while they are in school; 2) more than $700 million in Perkins loans, which are awarded to the most disadvantaged students in the nation; 3) almost $900 million in loan forgiveness for students who enter government or nonprofit employment, where salaries are historically lower than private-sector jobs; and 4) more than $700 million for supplemental grants, which support the neediest of college students.

The most catastrophic reduction is in work-study grants; the president’s budget would cut these funds from just under the current $1 billion to $500 million — almost 50 percent. The combination of these programs often provides the margin of support students need for rent, food, and educational supplies after tuition and fees have been paid. There is a growing awareness of food insufficiency and homelessness among college students, and these cuts will only make the problem more pronounced. It is difficult to see how such significant reductions can support “continuing to make college more affordable,” as the president stated in his March budget blueprint.

The proposed eliminations and reductions will simply make attending college more difficult, if not impossible, for millions of students and their families.

The justifications for these eliminations and reductions are also flimsy at best, skewed and distorted at worst. The FSEOG contributes $100 to $4,000 per student. The proposal mentions some concerns with allocations toward truly needy students, but rather than fix these problems, the president chooses to simply do away with the program. The proposal notes that 2 percent of the funding currently goes to administrative costs — which would be a remarkable figure for any charitable nonprofit organization and is achieved only by the very best organizations — and argues that the money could be better spent on direct aid. The problem is, of course, that the money isn’t to be spent at all; it is to be taken away.

Similar distortions of the data permeate the president’s budget recommendations. In justifying the enormous reduction in work-study funds, the plan notes that one-third of the money goes to students with family incomes of less than $30,000, while two-thirds goes to families earning more than $30,000. The rationale does not take into account family size, nor does it show the income ranges supported by that two-thirds. It simply proposes eliminating almost half of the funding to solve this ill-defined problem.

Disingenuousness permeates the budget proposal. While it supports expanded access to Pell Grants year-round so that students can complete their degrees faster, it doesn’t increase the overall allocation for the program. Since the typical Pell Grant is less than $6,000, if a student needs that money for the fall and spring semesters, which almost all students do, there’s nothing left for the summer, even if the student can use it then.

The proposed eliminations and reductions will simply make attending college more difficult, if not impossible, for millions of students and their families. They will do nothing to stimulate the economy, generate job growth, or secure a better future for American workers. They are regressive measures masquerading as data-informed choices in which justifications were apparently created after the decisions to eliminate or reduce programs were already made. Nothing in these documents should give anyone in higher education, especially the students and their families who depend upon such support to attend college, any hope that their dreams and ambitions will be supported.●

Douglas J. Cremer, PhD, is dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Woodbury University and deacon of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.