Let them eat cereal
Posted on February 19, 2011
At somewhere around 4:30 this morning, the House passed HR1, the budget that would keep government running until September and that would include$100b in cuts. It would cut Pell Grants by $845 — Pell Grants go to the very poorest of college students — and 1.7m students would be dropped from the program. The remaining 7.5m students would see a decrease in aid. The proposed budget would also cut the SEOG program, taking aid away from millions more of our neediest students.
This news comes in the same week that Governor Lynch proposed to cut ALL state grant aid to New Hampshire’s poorest college students, making us the first and only state in the nation without state grant support for poor college students. The Governor also wants to raid a non-government fund, the Unique Scholarship Fund created by contributions from Fidelity Investment, to help cover the operating costs of the public institutions.
While cutting $3.5m in state grants to students, the Governor found $4m in new support for the state’s correction systems. Is the irony lost on him?
I criticized the Governor’s proposed cuts on WMUR and in yesterday’s Union Leader op-ed piece and the public response from the Governor’s spokesman was that the grants to individuals were too small to make a difference. I would like to invite the Governor to campus and introduce him to some of those students who receive state grants to ask if they think the grants are too small to make a difference.
About 90% of our students receive financial aid. I receive many appeals from students whose parents have lost jobs or seen reduced hours and we this year increased our SNHU grant support from about $14m per year to $20m (more than five times the amount the state makes available to all NH students) in the face of unprecedented need. Our students work too many hours as it is and I worry about the impact of 30 hour part-time jobs on academic performance and the ability to participate in student organizations, sports, and other campus activities.
For our neediest students, the cost of attending SNHU can be dramatically less than our “sticker” price after our institutional support, loans, grants, and work study. A $1000 in grant aid might not seem like a lot to the Governor, but it might be 10% of a student’s actual tuition. It certainly covers the costs of books. For families who are scraping by and working as much as they can, that $1000 might mean all sorts of painful trade offs — what bills get paid and what bills get more overdue, replacing a worn out tire or taking a chance it will hold a while longer, going without some basic in day to day life. Sometimes that “small” grant is the last bit that makes a difference in whether to attend school or not.
Thinking that these amounts don’t make a difference demonstrates an abject and perhaps willful failure to appreciate what it means to be poor in this country. Maybe the Governor has never gone too long putting up with a toothache a little longer, or finding new school clothes for one’s kids at Goodwill, or experiencing the countless daily small humiliations that come with having not enough no matter how hard you work.
Last week I had a student write me a gracious, heartfelt letter that described her struggle to pay the remaining portion of her tuition bill. I’ll call her Katie (not her real name). Katie’s mom works retails and her dad’s business had slowed down. She has a 3.8 GPA, is active in various student organizations, and worked work study and a part-time job. She and her parents were willing to take on more debt (something I worry about a lot for our students), but they were denied given their family means. She didn’t ask for money. She asked me if there was anything she could do to cover the difference the financial gap. I invited her to meet with me and I heard her story. I also saw the dark circles under eyes and the worry in her voice. I could not in good conscience ask her to work more, so I found scholarship money to cover the gap.
She practically broke down in my office from gratitude and relief.
I have never shared this story publicly, but in the 1970s when I was an undergraduate at a state college, my father had a stroke and retired from his job as a stone mason. I had paid my own way through college and in those days a full-time job in the summer and a work study job during the year could actually cover the costs. I did both and I also worked as a stringer for the Westfield Evening News (making 35 cents a column inch — if I covered a selectman’s meeting and someone sneezed, I worked it into the story to get more copy). My old 1965 Dodge Dart GT, still the best care I have ever owned, broke down and I couldn’t turn to my parents for help. I lived off campus, renting a room from my editor, because it was cheaper, and went a week eating cereal three times a day to help save money (I think I went three years before I could look at Corn Flakes again and still don’t eat them).
Finally, I applied for food stamps. I was a little ashamed and tried to go the store when no one else would see me use them (the program no longer covers college students thanks to Ronald Reagan, by the way). I probably used them for a month or two until I could pay back the person who lent me money for my car repairs (without the car I couldn’t work). I was young and optimistic and sort of breezed through the experience, hardly a scarring experience (though I still refuse to carry any credit card debt), but for that little bit of time I knew what it felt like to be wholly squeezed. To not know how to get the basics. Millions of people in this country are living that way not for a few weeks, but for months and years at a time.
The grants the state provided our poorest students might not seem very large to those facing huge budget deficits. Cutting Pell Grants by $845 per student seems like a modest amount given the overall cost of an education, but it can only feel so to those lucky enough not to have to count every dollar and make those small trade-offs every day. It doesn’t feel that way to the millions of Katies whose lives can be transformed through education.
Let this deficit-obsessed House first cut corporate welfare in the form of oil subsidies (while the oil companies enjoy windfall profits), agricultural subsidies, and defense (with the US accounting for 46.5% of the world’s military spending and China, our so-called “next threat,” a far distant second at 6.6%). Let it simply raise the high end tax bracket back to the Clinton era 39% (when we actually debated what to do with our record surplus). Let it end senseless wars of choice that have cost us a trillion dollars over the last ten years. Let it impose a small transaction tax on every stock transaction, no matter the howls of Wall Street. Let it means test Social Security (I don’t care if you paid into the system, if you’re retirement income is more than $100k per year you surrender it). Let it have the courage (I was tempted to use a more crass colloquialism here) to actually address health care costs, not just coverage. Then, maybe then, if we still have to cut budgets we can ask our neediest people to sacrifice.
The Governor and the House should be ashamed of themselves.