By Jordan Blum
While the popular merit-based TOPS scholarships are often a hot topic in Louisiana, the looming crisis for federal, need-based Pell Grant funding often is overlooked.
The state's funding for TOPS is growing to about $170 million, but the U.S. Department of Education estimates that about $490 million in federal Pell Grant funds will go to more than 100,000 Louisiana recipients this year.
Nationally, more than one-third of all college students receive some type of Pell award, intended to help bridge the cost of higher education for lower-income and some middle-class families.
Although total funding for the nearly $40 billion program has doubled in recent years and the maximum award has grown from $4,731 to $5,550 under President Barack Obama.
The cost gap between the grant award and the cost of college is wider than ever because of skyrocketing college tuition costs, said Stephen Burd, the Education Sector's senior policy analyst.
In 2014, Pell Grant funding is looking at a steep budget funding shortfall of roughly $7 billion, unless something is done.
The Education Sector, a nonpartisan group that focuses on education research and policy recommendations, held a forum this past week called, "Is the Pell Grant Program Sustainable?"
"To keep it going, we sort of have a panic every year now to find another source of one-time funding," said Jason Delisle, director of the Federal Education Budget Project at the centrist New America Foundation.
Obama significantly boosted struggling Pell Grant funding in his first year in office through federal stimulus dollars, but emergency fixes were needed last year to sustain the Pell funding when the stimulus dollars ran dry.
Jon Oberg, a former researcher for the U.S. Department of Education, said the "nickel-and-diming" discussion is setting the country back. Pell funding must become more of a long-term priority for the nation, as the United States continues to fall behind other countries in educational attainment, he said.
This federal fight is going on while state funding for need-based aid programs and higher education has decreased in most states, including Louisiana.
Louisiana's main need-based aid program, GO Grants, is funded at a level of $26.4 million annually. While Gov. Bobby Jindal often criticizes federal spending, he has cited increased Pell Grant support when asked about cutting the Go Grants budget in the past.
So what are the federal options?
Obama wants to fully maintain Pell funding for this year and 2013, but the 2014 cliff still looms. The max awards rise to $5,635 next year to match inflation.
The Republican-controlled U.S. House passed the Ryan budget as the alternative that cuts more federal spending as proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
The new plan freezes the max Pell awards at $5,550 while imposing a too-be-determined family income cap and eliminating the eligibility for many part-time students who take just one or two courses a year.
Jose Cruz, the Education Sector's vice president for higher education policy, said that still represents House Republicans making budget cuts "off the backs of the poor."
Pell Grants will become much more meaningless if the maximum award is frozen or cut, as tuition costs escalate each year, he said.
Cruz said Obama's approach works because it sustains Pell funding, while giving his administration time to finish developing a long-term plan.
As the fight continues, the Louisiana delegation mostly comes down along party lines.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu contends that more than 5,500 Louisianians who receive Pell grants now would no longer qualify under the Ryan budget, because of more-limited qualifications.
"Supporting Pell Grants isn't about politics -- it is about doing what's smart for our country: What's right for our young people and investing in our future," Landrieu stated.
But U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, backs the Ryan plan and chastises Obama for not yet addressing the 2014 cliff.
"It's good politics in an election year, but not sustainable," Cassidy said of Obama. The Ryan budget sustains the Pell program and keeps the money going to the neediest, he said.