Education Official Defends Department's Pell Grant Proposals to Lawmakers

March 15, 2011

At a Congressional hearing on Tuesday, Martha J. Kanter, the top postsecondary-education official in the U.S. Department of Education, defended department decisions that call for maintaining the maximum Pell Grant award while eliminating year-round Pell Grant awards.

The department's Pell Grant proposals, part of President Obama's budget this year, drew criticism from both sides of the aisle at the hearing, held by an education subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The department is requesting $28.6-billion for the Pell Grant program this year, down from the $33-billion requested last year. The number of recipients has grown steadily in the past two years, Ms. Kanter said, leading to a potential $20-billion shortfall if cuts aren't made and appropriations do not increase.

The department has decided it needs to make cuts, said Ms. Kanter, who as under secretary of education oversees policies and programs related to postsecondary education, vocational and adult education, and federal student aid.

The most notable cut would be the elimination of the year-round provision, which lets some students receive more than one grant per year, allowing the grants to be used for summer classes. That move would free up $8-billion this year, which the department could use to preserve the maximum Pell Grant award of $5,550, keeping most students from being affected by the cuts, Ms. Kanter said.

Republicans called on the department to lower the grant's maximum award, while Democrats criticized the proposal to get rid of the year-round provision.

Addressing Democrats' concerns, Ms. Kanter said that department statistics showed the year-round provision produced only a 1-percent gain in summer-school enrollment. Continuing it would have forced cuts to the maximum grant award, which would have affected more students, she said.

"We just didn't feel we could afford it, and our highest priority was maintaining the $5,550 maximum," Ms. Kanter said in response to questions from Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a California Democrat.

The subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Dennis Rehberg, a Montana Republican, said the increases in Pell Grant awards approved under federal stimulus legislation in 2009 should not have been permanent, because the idea behind the stimulus was to provide money for one-time expenditures.

Ms. Kanter said the award had to be updated to keep up with inflation. Cutting back to pre-2009 levels, she warned, would cause graduation rates to fall because students would feel unsure of how much Pell money they could receive, whether the award would rise or fall in the future, and whether they could afford their classes.

"When things are unstable, students walk away," Ms. Kanter said. "We don't want that to happen."