Politics & Government

Students lobby for Pell Grant move

WASHINGTON - The son of a single mom from Federal Way, Matt Jarrell says he may never have made it through Western Washington University without the money he received from Pell Grants.

Virgilio Clinton of Olympia, like Jarrell a senior at Western Washington, says he has lots of friends who wouldn’t have been in college except for the grants, which provide more than $260 million in financial aid to nearly 100,000 students in Washington state. Clinton remembers one young woman who received the grants, but still had to work 35 hours a week. Her grades suffered, and she dropped out of college,

“It’s all too common,” Clinton said.

Jarrell, Clinton and 10 other students from Western and other Washington state schools were in the nation’s capital Tuesday to lobby for Senate passage of significant changes in federal college aid that would boost Pell Grant funding by $36.5 billion.

Without the increased funding, individual Pell Grants would be cut in half, and 500,000 students dropped from the program even as demand for college aid has grown dramatically in the midst of the economic downturn.

The Pell Grant overhaul is included in the health care measure the Senate is expected to pass by week’s end. The so-called “reconciliation bill” makes changes demanded by the House in the health bill President Barack Obama signed Tuesday. The changes in the Pell Grant program have been one of the White House’s top priorities and were attached to the reconciliation bill.

At a morning rally, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told about 200 college students that she and her six brothers and sisters wouldn’t have been able to go to college without federal loans and grants.

“If our parents can’t pay, where will the money come from?” Murray said. “We now have to make the same investment in our next generation.”

The legislation, which has already passed the House, would save $61 billion over 10 years by ending subsidies to banks and replacing it with direct to student lending by the federal government. About $10 billion of the savings will be set aside to reduce the federal budget deficit, $13.5 billion will be used to cover the shortfall in the Pell Grant program, and $23 billion will increase the size of the grants.

Annual Pell grants would grow from $5,550 to $5,975 by 2017. And for the first time, the grants would increase as the cost of living rises.

The rest of the savings would be used for community colleges, early education, K-12 education, school modernization and black colleges.

Murray’s office said total Pell Grant funding for Washington would roughly double over the next year to $464 million under the measure.

The number of students receiving Pell Grants in Washington state this year increased by 13,000 or 10 percent and is up 16 percent over the past two years. In addition, there has been a 25 percent increase in Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) applications from Washington state students and their families, the 10th largest increase among all states.

“These grants truly represent the only chance for many of these students,” Murray said.

But even as the federal government appears poised to overhaul the Pell Grant program, Washington state college students say tuition increases and cuts in the work-study program are squeezing them tighter.

The state Legislature has allowed state schools to increase tuition 14 percent this year and 14 percent next year. Gov. Chris Gregoire had proposed suspending state-funded work study. Both the House and Senate budget would restore it, but at a reduced rate.

Jamie Marine, a sophomore at Western Washington from Mukilteo, said she believes a college education is a right and shouldn’t be available just to the rich.

“Higher education is a necessity,” she said. “I’ve heard some students say if costs go up and financial support goes down, they may drop out.”

Les Blumenthal: 202-383-0008