The Ryan Budget: A Self-Referential Approach to Pell

March 18, 2013

Congressman Paul Ryan and I have one thing in common. We were both college students in the early 90s. He went to the Miami University in Ohio. I went to Grinnell College in Iowa. Neither of us was burdened with the need to balance our studies with a full-time job, so we were both fortunate to be able to attend these institutions full-time and graduate in four years. We were 18 when we started. We were 22 when we finished.

I lied. Paul Ryan and I have more than one thing in common: Our experience as college students was atypical in the early 1990s. It's even more atypical today. Nearly half of undergraduates are financially independent and work at least part-time (one-third work full time). As a result, nearly half attend school part-time. They go to jobs every day, because unlike Congressman Ryan and me, they are self-supporting college students. Many of these students are low-income and need federal Pell grants to help partially finance their education.

Until the 2007 College Cost Reduction and Access Act, this near-majority of self-supporting college students was penalized for working because the formulas used to calculate their eligibility for Pell grants assumed that like Congressman Ryan and me, they had someone financially supporting them. As a result, their earnings counted against their Pell grant eligibility and reduced the amount of their grants, even when their income was below poverty level. The 2007 law removed this "work penalty" on low-income self-supporting college students.

One would assume that Congressman Ryan, a vociferous champion of the value of work, would oppose such a penalty. But the budget he released on behalf of House Republicans last week tells a different story.

At the same time that the Ryan budget imposes new work requirements on recipients of many federal benefits, it re-imposes the "work penalty" on low-income, self-supporting college students by rolling back the 2007 changes to Pell grant eligibility. Ryan's budget narrative asserts that this will "ensure limited education resources are directed at those who are truly needy."

Congressman Ryan's Pell grant proposal does not demonstrate a commitment to the most needy. It demonstrates that his perception of college students reflects his own experience as a full-time financially dependent student in the early 90s. Don't forget what Congressman Ryan and I have in common: Our college experience is the exception.

Unfortunately, this self-referential approach to higher education policy is not new. The Congressman's budget proposal last year eliminated Pell grant eligibility altogether for students who attend college part-time, asserting these grants should be "reserved for students with a larger commitment to their education." I would argue that the near-majority of America's college students who attend school part-time, in most cases because they are balancing the financial necessity of work, are demonstrating the greatest possible commitment to their education.

While Congressman Ryan's college experience is out of step with most undergraduates in the nation, it is fairly consistent with other members of Congress and their children. That is why it is essential that members of Congress step outside of their own experience when it comes to student financial aid policy. This is essential not just because it's the best way to address the needs of most undergraduates, but because it's an economic necessity.

To simply meet labor market demand, the U.S. needs to generate an additional 3 million associate and bachelor degrees and 4.7 sub-baccalaureate postsecondary credentials by 2018. If we want to stay competitive with the top performing countries, we'll need to generate an additional 10.1 million associate and bachelor degrees among working age adults by 2020.

America won't reach these goals, we won't remain competitive, and college will remain out of reach for too many hard working people if college financial aid policy is based on what Congressman Ryan and I have in common.