Last year at this time, Congress was pushing through the biggest boost to the federal Pell Grant program in a generation. Pell, the largest source of grant aid for low-income students to attend college, once covered two-thirds of the cost of a public college. It had dwindled to covering about one-third of those costs by the time the Obama administration stepped in with a massive infusion of cash.

Pell is now bigger than ever — and targeted for a new round of cuts.

Congressional Republicans have proposed cutting $6 billion from the $40 billion program. Those cuts would reduce the largest Pell award by $845.

The Obama administration favors preserving the maximum grant of $5,550. But the program faces a shortfall of more than $10 billion. The largest Pell grant has grown, and the number of students receiving the grants has ballooned — from 6.2 million in 2008 to more than 9 million this year.

Quite apart from the merits of cutting Pell or not cutting Pell, there is an important question of timing. The vast majority of large state institutions have already told admitted students how much aid they are likely to expect, including Pell grants. Many students have already chosen colleges based partly on available aid.

Changing the Pell program now could trip up millions of families well after aid and attendance decisions have been made, according to student advocates. Students generally must decide where to attend by May 1.

“This is literally the worst possible time to be talking about a cut to federal student aid,” said Rick Shipman, director of financial aid at Michigan State University, in a conference call today organized by the nonprofit U.S. PIRG.

If Congress enacts Pell cuts now, Shipman said, colleges will have to send out another round of letters with new, lower aid figures at the very end of the admission cycle.

“I can’t imagine having to send a letter to over 9,000 families saying, “I’m sorry, but the aid offer we sent to you previously is now null and void,” he said.

The students most affected by any cuts would be those in the greatest need, whose college plans are most easily disrupted, said Rich Williams, higher education advocate at U.S. PIRG.

We’re talking about the students who are on the tipping point already,” he said.

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