President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos never had to worry about the cost of a college education for themselves or their children. They never had to skip meals because they couldn’t afford to buy food. They never feared becoming homeless because they couldn’t afford a place to live.
Unfortunately, I — like millions of other low-income people — have had these worries. Not because we are lazy, ignored our school work or are not very bright. We simply didn’t have the good fortune of Trump and DeVos to be born into wealthy families. Many of us have had other bad breaks as well.
In my own case, I dropped out of high school to work at a low-wage job to help my mother pay mounting bills. Later, I was stricken with a disease called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome that made it impossible for me to work for seven years and required me to undergo 12 surgeries, leaving me and my husband struggling to get by with our three children. I turned to a charity to pay my enormous medical bills. Disabled, with little education, my employment opportunities were dismal.
Fortunately, I found my way to community college and then transferred to Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., where I am now a student. My life was transformed when I received a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship that provides me with up to $40,000 a year for my education at Hamline. But most low-income students aren’t as lucky.
I resumed my education after many years out of school because, like the vast majority of low-income students, I want to make something of myself, get a good job and leave poverty behind. I am told the best way to do this is to get an education beyond high school.
But instead of helping us to further our educations, President Trump recently proposed his “America First” budget that calls for a 13 percent cut in the Education Department budget, amounting to $9 billion.
In higher education, Trump has proposed taking $3.9 billion in surplus funds from Pell Grants for low-income students to use for other parts of government; $200 million in cuts to other programs that help low-income students pay for and succeed in college; cuts to the Federal Work-Study program that pays students to hold part-time jobs; and elimination of the Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants for low-income students.
Two particularly effective programs that prepare low-income students for college and help them graduate would be hit hard — one called GEAR-UP (the acronym stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) would be eliminated, and a group of programs called TRIO would be cut. TRIO got its name from three initiatives that date to the 1960s.
As someone who received Work-Study funding myself, I know that career-oriented jobs under the program are important not just for the money they provide, but because they give students a solid foundation of experiential knowledge they can draw from in the future.
If TRIO is underfunded, students like me will also lose valuable information about scholarships. For example, my community college’s TRIO director encouraged me to apply for the Cooke Foundation scholarship.
Colleges and universities across the United States are working to provide more scholarships and other resources to help low-income students afford tuition and get needed food, housing, clothing, health care and child care. But the schools need more money — not less — from the federal government to help fund this vital assistance.
Trump’s proposed education spending cuts build what amounts to a giant wall between the ambitions of low-income Americans like me and the American Dream of a brighter future. Combined with massive cuts the president has proposed for other programs to help poor people, the Trump budget sends a stark message to all of us who want to work our way into the middle class: DO NOT ENTER.
If we are to “make America great again” we need to increase the number of college graduates, not reduce them. We need to take advantage of the brainpower of all our people, not just those who can spend thousands of dollars a year on a higher education.
Trump’s budget is out, so it’s now up to our elected members of Congress to determine whether they want to make college more affordable or less for their constituents. Investing in the education of students not fortunate enough to be born into wealth and privilege is the right thing to do both economically and morally and will help build a better future for our great country and for the American people.
An Garagiola-Bernier is a student at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn.