The federal Pell Grant Program has become a lifeline for Ricky Cline's family. The $5,550-a-year godsend has enabled Cline to pursue his dance degree at the University of Montana for the past three years. His little brother, Nick, started his freshman year at UM last fall as a grant recipient. His mother, Bridget, relies on the funds to cover online classes she needs to keep her job as a preschool teacher in Cut Bank. And it's a safe bet Cline's youngest brother Zac, now a high school sophomore, will seek a Pell Grant should he opt for college.
"It's the one thing I need to rely on, and it's nice to know that it's there for all three of us in our family who are receiving full Pell Grants," says Cline, 21. "It's a huge portion of just my family's means of living."
When Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives pitched an $845 cut to each Pell Grant nationwide last month, Cline had serious cause for concern. Between classes and performances, his major demands a significant amount of his time, and Cline already works as a customer service representative in UM's Financial Aid Office. Taking on another job to pay his way through college simply isn't an option.
"My family's not financially stable enough to support me in college," Cline says, "so I'd be on my own if loans weren't enough to pay my bills."
Cline isn't alone when it comes to reliance on Pell Grants in Missoula. UM Financial Aid Director Kent McGowan estimates between 40 and 45 percent of undergraduates—or roughly 5,700 students—receive some level of assistance from the need-based program. A full $5,550-a-year Pell Grant covers almost the entire cost of tuition and fees.
The U.S. Senate voted against the proposed cut last week, but GOP leaders in the House are expected to continue their sudden push to decrease Pell Grant funding during ongoing budget negotiations.
"About a month ago, there was no bill," McGowan says. "The Department of Ed had actually issued tentative Pell charts for next year that were based on the same maximum as last year. The assumption was we weren't going to see the increase promised last year, but we could live with stasis. But then, out of the blue, the new House threw out this bill."
From a numbers perspective, the House's attempt to cut the Pell Grant Program isn't hard to understand. Pell Grants cost the federal government $18 billion in 2008, but that total nearly doubled with the onset of the recession. As family income levels dropped and more people became Pell Grant eligible, the number of recipients increased by nearly three million in three years. UM alone paid out $21.5 million in Pell Grants this academic year. The White House now predicts that, if left unchecked, the Pell Grant Program's cost will rise to $41 billion in 2012.
McGowan points to the closure of Frenchtown's Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. plant and the subsequent surge in enrollment at UM's College of Technology (COT) to illustrate how the Pell Grant Program "exploded." But he warns that a cut to program funding could further cripple those individuals and families hit by the recession—and overtax institutions like COT where even reduced Pell Grants could still cover tuition and fees.
"There will be students who will make other choices if that aid is not there," McGowan says. "They will stop-out for a while. They will choose to go to COT or a community college instead. Or worst case scenario they'll choose not to go to college at all because they can't afford it. Right now, the COT is already bursting at the seams, so do we really want more students who have the academic ability to succeed on the main campus fill the already overfull COT?"
In an effort to relieve the situation, President Obama has proposed a different cut to the Pell Grant Program in his 2012 budget. Two years ago, the program began awarding an optional second grant to students to allow recipients to attend summer semesters. According to the White House, that portion of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 costs "over 10 times more than originally estimated, with no evidence that it meets the original goal of accelerating students' progress toward a degree." The Pell Grant expansion came with an original annual price tag of less than $300 million. In 2011-2012 alone, that price tag is estimated to be around $8 billion.
Obama's cut, coupled with proposed restructuring of the Perkins and Stafford loan programs, could generate a savings of as much as $8 billion to be used to maintain current Pell Grant levels.
"Given a choice between giving a student a decent-sized grant to go for the traditional school year versus having this cut so they can get a grant in the summertime, I'd rather have a larger grant for fewer semesters," McGowan says.
For Cline, there's no safety net in the event the federal government reduces his Pell Grant on the eve of his senior year. His father recently lost his job as a plumber's assistant in Cut Bank, further stressing the family's financial situation. Cline doubts his family could support him if a financial aid cut forced him out of school.
"Even if I was out on the streets, there's very little they could do," Cline says. "Unless I moved back home."