DEBATE IS intensifying over the federal Pell Grant program. Some see runaway spending that can’t be sustained in the face of the mounting national debt; others believe no one with skill and determination should be denied a college education for lack of financial resources. We think it’s shortsighted to try to save money by denying people the chance to better themselves, but there is merit in making the program more cost-effective.

The Pell Grant program, started more than 30 years ago to make college accessible to low-income students, is on the chopping block as President Obama negotiates with Congress on how to rein in the country’s debt. The needs-based grants, which do not have to be repaid, can be used at traditional state or private institutions as well as for-profit schools. (Disclosure: Among those for-profits is Kaplan, a subsidiary of The Washington Post Co.) Republicans are clamoring for cuts in Pell grants, either through reducing the maximum award size from $5,550 or restricting student eligibility. The budget passed by the House would slash the maximum grant by 45 percent and cut about 1.5 million students from the program.

There is no question the program has grown explosively, from $18 billion serving 6.2 million students in 2008-09 to $35 billion in 2011-12 serving 9.4 million students. For an estimated 20 to 40 percent of those students, Pell grants are a deciding factor in their ability to pursue higher education. Stimulus dollars pumped in by the Obama administration allowed more students to go to college during a down economy. Nonetheless, there remains a depressing gap in college attendance between the wealthy and the low-income. The nonprofit Education Trust found that even as attending college is on the rise, students from low-income families attend at a lower rate (54 percent) than did wealthy students in the mid-1970s (64 percent). Higher college completion rates do more than improve the future of individuals; they make for a healthier, more competitive national economy.

The suggestion that Pell grants fuel the rise in tuitions is belied by their diminished purchasing power. Thirty years ago, the maximum award was equivalent to about three-fourths of the cost of attending a public four-year institution; the current figure is one-third.

Is there a way to better target and help the students who have the best chance of collegiate success? How do you encourage both institutions and individuals to be more cost-conscious? Is there a way to weed out those casual about achievement and graduation without discouraging schools from taking a chance on underserved students? There’s nothing wrong with pursuing such questions, but budget pressures should not be allowed to gut this important program.