Tracing the Evolution of Romney’s Position on Pell Grants

In the second presidential debate, on Tuesday at Hofstra University, in New York, the Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s statements in favor of increasing Pell Grants surprised some reporters. The New York Times’s Richard Pérez-Peña called Mr. Romney’s assertion that he wanted “to make sure we keep our Pell Grant program growing” a “new position for him.”

Mr. Romney’s previous remarks indicate that he has been moving gradually toward that position over the course of the campaign.

  • During the Republican primaries, Mr. Romney was all but mute on higher-education issues. While his opponents made mention of higher education during the debates, Mr. Romney did not. His campaign Web site at the time did not mention Pell Grants.
  • In the months that led up to his nomination, Mr. Romney commended Rep. Paul Ryan’s controversial budget plan, which Democrats have criticized for its proposals on the Pell Grant program. In April the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan think tank, published a comparative analysis of how the Ryan and Obama budgets would affect the shortfall in Pell Grant funds, concluding that:

    The Ryan budget would both cut Pell benefits and eligibility and freeze the maximum grant at $5,550 per student per year, apparently on a permanent basis. … It would repeal the entire $101 billion in existing mandatory funding for Pell over the next ten years—both the permanent, open-ended funding and the temporary pools of fixed funding.

  • In May the Romney campaign released a comprehensive education-policy plan that criticized President Obama for doubling funds for Pell Grants and suggested that while the program would continue under a Romney administration, it would face reforms that could lead to cuts in the number of eligible students:

    For instance, as a result of the expanding entitlement mentality, the Pell Grant program—the foundation of the federal investment in student financial aid—is on unsure financial footing. To keep up with the program’s massive increases, the government has been forced to take steps such as eliminating subsidized loans for graduate students. A Romney Administration will refocus Pell Grant dollars on the students that need them most and place the program on a responsible long-term path that avoids future funding cliffs and last-minute funding patches.

  • Immediately after Mr. Ryan was announced as Mr. Romney’s vice-presidential running mate, in August, Mr. Romney’s campaign both praised the Ryan budget and distanced Mr. Romney from it. One of the talking points distributed to reporters by the campaign at the time said, “Gov. Romney applauds Paul Ryan for going in the right direction with his budget, and as president he will be putting together his own plan for cutting the deficit and putting the budget on a path to balance.”
  • The following month, during a “Meet the Candidate” forum hosted by Univision, the Spanish-language television network, a University of Miami student asked Mr. Romney about the future of the Pell Grant program and whether he would fall in line with the reductions Mr. Ryan had proposed. He replied:

    I care about your education and helping people of modest means get a good education, and we’ll continue a Pell Grant program. I think the Republican budget called for Pell Grants being capped out at their current high level. My inclination would be to have them go with the rate of inflation.

  • During the first presidential debate, in early October, Mr. Romney intimated that he would not change the current student-aid programs and instead would encourage their growth. “I’m not going to cut education funding,” he said. “I don’t have any plan to cut education funding. And grants that go to people going to college I’m planning on continuing to grow, so I’m not planning on making changes there.”
  • During Tuesday’s debate, Mr. Romney said: “I want to make sure we keep our Pell Grant program growing.”
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