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4/12/17

 
 
 

President Donald Trump recently submitted a preliminary federal budget to Congress that, if enacted, would significantly cut the aid available to college students. Eboni Zamani-Gallaher, the director of the Office of Community College Research and Leadership and a professor of higher education/community college leadership at the University of Illinois, spoke recently with News Bureau education editor Sharita Forrest about the potential impact on college students.

President Trump’s America First budget blueprint calls for a $1.3 billion reduction in the Pell Grant Program, significant cuts to the Federal Work-Study Program and total elimination of the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant Program, which assists students who have the greatest financial need. If Congress enacts Trump’s proposals, what is the likely impact on low-income college students?

College access for low-income students will be jeopardized should Congress enact Trump’s proposed elimination of the SEOG Program and the substantive cuts he has proposed for the Federal Work-Study and the Pell Grant programs. Essentially, the Trump administration values raising defense spending while significantly reducing nonmilitary-related priorities such as higher education.

While Trump’s administration recently stated it supported reinstituting year-round Pell Grants, which would give students support in the summer months, it is curious to me if this is just a momentary pivot, given Trump’s projected cuts to Pell.

Since students who are eligible for Pell Grants are supposed to be first in line for SEOG funds, any cuts to the SEOG would adversely affect low-income and working-class students.

When considering the variation across income levels in families’ ability to pay, more than just tuition and fees must be considered. Personal expenses, books, computer equipment, supplies, transportation, dependent care costs and room-and-board expenses are not always considered when decisions to cut funding to the neediest students are enacted.

Trump says his proposed modifications to the Pell program, which include siphoning off $3.9 billion from the program’s $10.6 billion surplus to spend elsewhere, will safeguard the program’s future. Could Pell’s future be jeopardized, instead, by reallocating the surplus?

Yes, I see the future of the Pell Grant Program in jeopardy. The reallocation of the Pell Grant surplus is what I consider bait and switch. In essence, the Trump administration is seeking to spin this to divert what really is taking root, which is weakening opportunities for low-income students by undermining the Pell Grant program with the proposed cuts.

Again, things will be knocked off balance with the proposed cuts, and the result will be protecting college access for students from more affluent backgrounds instead of providing vehicles that make college more affordable for the masses.    

Some analysts suggest that reforms are needed to the Federal Work-Study funding formula because the current process benefits elite institutions and middle-class students rather than low-income students. How is funding currently allocated and what might be a more equitable process?

The work-study program disburses money directly to participating colleges and universities, which they, in turn, award to students for working jobs on campus. Much of the funds disbursed to schools are linked to the program’s “base guarantee,” which is designed to protect institutions from year-to-year fluctuations in their funding. This mechanism disproportionately benefits schools that have been participating in the work-study program since the 1970s and not the schools that have recently grown and serve more low-income students.

The rest of the work-study funding is based upon students’ unmet financial need. Privately controlled institutions direct disproportionate amounts of their Federal Work-Study funding to students who are not low income but who may have trouble affording the higher tuition charged by these institutions. Therefore, fewer low-income students at these campuses benefit from the program.

Are Trump’s proposed changes to the higher education budget extending an existing trend in federal higher education policy?

Federal financial aid has shifted increasingly toward self-help aid such as work-study and federal student loans, with lessening support for gift-based aid, e.g., Pell Grants, SEOG and state-level grants. Therefore, the way in which funding currently is allocated does not readily reflect limited resources being distributed in an equitable fashion.

If financial aid is to be truly responsive to advancing opportunities and producing equitable student outcomes across income levels, we need to strike a better balance between grant-based gift forms of financial aid and loan-based aid.

What is also concerning about the significant cuts Trump intends to make to Federal Work-Study is how the funds will be directed afterward. The budget blueprint indicates that the allocation formula will be reformed to ensure that funding goes to “students who will benefit the most,” but doesn’t specify how – or if – that will be accomplished.

Are Trump’s higher education priorities radically different from former President Obama’s?

The contrast could not be starker in terms of the prior and current presidential administrations relative to the higher education sector. The pendulum has swung – and quite swiftly – from promoting access, broadening participation and advancing college completion to limiting who is afforded access and pushing families out of postsecondary education.

The Trump administration does not appear particularly interested in ensuring access for all to postsecondary education or in extending college affordability to working-class families. If the proposed reductions in these federal aid programs are instituted, it is likely that there will be a widening opportunity gap and greater disparities between the haves and have-nots.  

Editor’s note: To contact Eboni Zamani-Gallaher, call 217-300-0897; email ezamanig@illinois.edu