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Posted at 10:17 AM ET, 11/22/2011

Guest post: Cutting student aid like ‘eating our own seed corn’

Here is a guest post from Dennis Berkey, president and CEO of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass. He wrote it before Monday’s dramatic collapse of the so-called “supercommittee” charged with reducing the national budget by a sum equal to the gross domestic product of Australia. Their failure signals big cuts to higher education, absent further intervention.

Since early September, the Congressional supercommittee has been meeting to discuss dramatic cuts ($1.2 trillion) to our national budget. However, before they make any decisions on education, they should talk to Jackie.

Jackie is a senior at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts, majoring in biology. Her dream is to become an immunologist. She intends to create new cures for the diseases that kill millions of people every year. After graduation, Jackie plans to go to graduate school, and after that, she’ll start a lifelong career in immunology research. Four years ago, Jackie’s dream of college seemed impossible. Raised in one of Worcester’s poorest neighborhoods, Jackie thought that college was out of the question, which is what most people had told her.

But one day a friend brought Jackie to the WPI campus and she fell in love with the school. More importantly, she fell in love with the idea of a future. That same friend told her about federal aid programs that help pay tuition. Because of these federal programs, combined with WPI’s own financial aid, Jackie found a way to pay for college.

This would not have been possible without federal aid programs. Pell Grants, SEOGs, Perkins Loans, Federal Work Study, Stafford Loans — these terms mean little to people who don’t need them, but they are paramount to our nation’s economic future. They are an investment in the next generation. They are an investment in our country. They are an investment in the human capital needed to restore our economy and our social fabric. But the word out of Washington is that financial aid is not viewed as investment, but as spending.

Cutting aid to low-income students would be a form of eating our own seed corn. These programs contribute mightily to our nation’s bottom line. They create highly skilled workers. They stimulate our economy. They even help create jobs. Clearly, it is time for a reminder as to why these programs are so vital.

While the economic impact of these programs is critical, the social impact may be even more important. During the past 30 years, social mobility in America has become stagnant, with a tiny minority taking an increasingly large share of economic wealth, and a growing segment of our population completely closed off from college. The success of the American Dream, its very existence even, depends on our collective ability to throw open the doors of higher education.

Consider my own school, Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Among our 3,537 undergraduates, 2,514 are receiving federal aid. Of those, we have 589 Pell Grant recipients; 167 with SEOG grants; 559 with Perkins Loans; 1,928 with Stafford Loans; and 753 have been offered federal work-study opportunities. Our admissions department estimates that most of these students would not be at our school, or any university, without this aid. Multiply that impact across the hundreds and hundreds of colleges around the country, and you can see why President Obama urged Congress to protect student financial aid during his latest State of the Union address.

Critics attempt to shift blame to the colleges, pointing to the rising cost of tuition. Yet, despite having their own costs rise substantially over the past decade, colleges and universities have worked diligently to operate more efficiently. Adjusted for inflation and after taking all forms of financial assistance into account, out-of-pocket net tuition charges at private institutions have actually dropped 11.2% in the past five years.

As colleges work hard to keep their doors open to students with little money but big dreams, our federal government must do the same. They must refrain from making cuts in federal financial aid programs, and instead do everything in their power to ensure that the opportunity for a higher education is not reserved for just the gilded few.

And if they need any evidence of the importance of federal financial aid, I would advise them to talk with Jackie.

By  |  10:17 AM ET, 11/22/2011

Categories:  Access, Aid, Finance, Public policy

 
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