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House Republicans want to cut back grants for poor college students

Pell grants that help students pay for college could be on the chopping block soon. (AP Photo/The Register-Guard, Brian Davies, file)

House Republicans looking for ways to balance the budget want to roll back President Obama's expansion of a federal program allowing many of the country's poorest students attend college.

On Tuesday, the House GOP released a budget memo that would freeze the maximum amount students receive from the government to pay for college; the grants would be held at $5,775 per school year for the next 10 years.

The proposal to limit Pell grants, as the assistance is known, is a part of a broader set of budget priorities that seeks to cut government spending by trillions of dollars over the next decade. It mirrors previous Republican plans to dial back funding for Pell, but this time around the party controls both chambers and has the power to advance the proposal.

Nine million students benefited from the $33.7 billion Pell grant program in the 2013-2014 school year. The program awards money that does not have to be repaid to students from low-income families. Nearly two-thirds of African American undergraduates receive Pell funding, as do 51 percent of Latino undergrads, according to the Education Trust.

The long-standing Pell program is currently running a surplus, but that is expected to dry up by 2017. House Republicans argue that maintaining the current max amount "makes the Pell Grant program permanently sustainable so that it is able to serve students today and in the future."

The Obama administration and both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have been tussling over how much money to put in the grant program at a time when many Americans are leaving school with five-figure debt.

President Obama doubled Pell funding in 2010 through savings eked out of reforms to the federal student loan system, but congressional budget agreements the following years cut the benefits by not allowing the grants to be used towards summer school. That change decreased program costs by $5 billion a year.

The administration tried to bolster Pell last year by increasing the maximum award by $100 to $5,775 per school year, which the Education Department said allowed the program to grow 25 percent.

The Institute for the College Access and Success (TICAS) argues that Pell costs have declined 20 percent since 2010 and are projected to remain level over the next 10 years, after adjusting for inflation. The advocacy group pointed out that Obama's proposed budget fully funds the scheduled increases in the maximum award and ties it to inflation after 2017.

Even at its current levels, a Pell grant is not enough to cover the full cost of college for many students. Nine out of ten Pell recipients who graduate from four-year colleges have student loans, and owe on average $4,750 more than their peers, according to TICAS.

The federal grant, much like all other free money, has not kept pace with the cost of going to school. The maximum Pell award covered 77 percent of the cost of attending a four-year public university in 1980, but that fell to 36 percent by 2011, according to the Education Trust.

Aside from freezing the Pell award, Republicans have not provided much details on their higher education priorities.

Senate Republicans released a budget resolution on Wednesday that would no longer guarantee funding for Pell every year and leave it up to Congress' discretion.

“This plan makes no real investments in programs that will prepare American workers for this 21st century economy, and will only make it harder to save money, harder to send a child to college, and harder to enjoy a secure retirement,” said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.