Last week, the White House revealed how the Trump administration will cut $18 billion from the federal budget while boosting defense spending by $30 billion — that is, by cutting a variety of educational programs, including taking $3.9 billion from the Pell grant program that helps low-income, high-achievers afford tuition. This decision, coupled with the recent discontinuation of a key tool in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, will make college less accessible for low-income students and decrease diversity on campus. USC’s faculty and administration should vocally oppose these actions.
The proposed Pell grant cuts are perhaps the administration’s most significant blow to educational equity. Pell grants are the nation’s largest income-based financial aid program. Because the aid does not have to be paid back, this money provides an immediate boost for low-income college students without the long-term drawbacks of othertypes of federal assistance. These grants also help to increase diversity on campuses — in 2011, 52.7 percent of Pell grant recipients were students of color. In the same year, these students made up just 31 percent of total enrollment in universities across the nation.
White House officials defend these cuts by pointing out that the cut would be covered by a budget overlay left over from the previous fiscal year. However, eliminating $3.9 billion means this money will not be used toward increasing college access for low-income students at a time when Pell grant funding is needed more than ever. Although maximum and average grant amounts have steadily increased since the mid-‘90s, the real value of the Pell grant has declined by two-thirds since 1979, while the cost of attending college has ballooned.
In addition, current levels of aid are inadequate, even for students at wealthy, highly competitive research universities like USC. According to ProPublica’s Debt by Degrees tool, USC provides a 76 percent discount on the total cost of college for low-income families — putting the University in the top one-fourth of colleges in the amount of aid it provides poor students. However, the University is not doing enough to bring students of this economic bloc to its campus in the first place, ranking near the middle of the pack in the ProPublica analysis.
In 2014, the median federal debt among USC graduates who received Pell grants was $22,500, the 60th highest amount among the 115 top private research universities in the nation. These numbers show that USC has work to do when it comes to enrolling and supporting low-income students.
The problem extends past USC, though. At Harvard, Yale and Princeton, Pell grant-eligible students made up less than 15 percent of total enrollment in 2014. In part, the low representation of low-income students reflects a lack of institutional commitment to expanding access, but it is also a result of the higher costs to recruit and support low-income students. The White House could support policies that incentivize outreach or institutional support for underrepresented students, but it appears ready to do the opposite.
Instead of rushing to solve this problem, the Trump administration recently abandoned the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which simplifies the FAFSA by inputting detailed tax information at the touch of a button. Before the IRS tool was in place, fewer students finished the application due to its complexity. The change requires families to fill out the form manually, increasing the intricacy of the process and the likelihood that an application can be selected for verification — which can delay the distribution of aid. Ultimately, the loss of the tool will harm low-income students who rely on federal aid.
Low-income students depend on the federal government to support policies that recognize the importance, challenge and cost of educating students from all backgrounds. The White House’s proposal to cut Pell grant funding and FAFSA supports will bar underrepresented students from college. To affirm the University’s commitment to supporting these students and expanding diversity on campus, USC faculty and administration leaders should oppose the president’s attacks on college accessibility by allocating more funding to financial aid, scholarships and outreach to low-income communities to learn and better address their needs. As a leader among U.S. colleges, USC’s work toward expanding college accessibility could have the capacity to greatly influence other colleges to work toward this goal, too.