Congress (surprise!) leads way on financial aid
State needs to step up higher ed funding in upcoming budget
THE SPENDING BILL passed by Congress finally recognizes what educators, students, and business leaders have been saying for years: Without a robust and affordable higher education system, we will not be able to succeed in the increasingly competitive global marketplace. This bill should serve as a model for Massachusetts legislators as they prepare their own spending plan.
In a refreshing – and surprising – turnaround Congress in case after case put additional money where America needs it most: In programs that help low- and middle-income students afford college. Financial aid programs such as Pell Grants, Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants, and Federal Work Study are up 3 percent, 14.6 percent and 14.2 percent respectively. These are programs that college and university leaders and their students were deeply concerned would be decimated in the new budget – and warned repeatedly that if they were in fact cut or erased, would drive thousands of students away from the education they need to contribute to our innovation-driven economy.
That warning, the hard work of Congressional delegations such as our own, along with a growing national consensus on the detrimental effects of mounting college loan debt, appears to have been taken to heart by Congress in this spending bill. And in case after case, Trump Administration efforts to gut higher education for lower- and middle-income Americans were rejected.
These are dollars that make a difference. The Pell Grant increase to $6,095 means more than $21.4 million in additional aid for 122,523 Massachusetts students who depend on those grants to keep higher education affordable. And the $840 million added to Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants provides funds to 43,170 Massachusetts – many of whom otherwise would not be able to afford a degree. Even funding for graduate student programs – something crucial for Massachusetts’ higher education sector and our intellectually rigorous workforce – suffered only a minor cut after deep concerns that the program would be ended.
Ideally, this spending plan will serve as a template for states now looking at where to put their resources in ways that can create a stronger workforce, help families struggling with college costs and start to put a dent in the college loan burden borne by too many young people. Typically, Massachusetts is a national leader when it comes to higher education. But in this instance the recently enacted Federal budget provides an instructive template the state should consider as it prepares its own FY19 budget.
More than 170,000 undergraduate students attend a private college or university in Massachusetts, and the 57 institutions that make up the Association for Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts are investing $608 million this year in grants and scholarships just for students from our own state.
However, even in the face of the widely-acknowledged college loan crisis, we are seeing aid to low- and middle-income families from the state fall. In fact, when inflation is taken into account, this year’s need-based state financial aid is significantly lower than the amount provided in 2001 – $95.8 million compared to $144.9 million. These declines hurt the talented young people we can all agree need our help the most.
Gov. Charlie Baker has bumped need-based aid by $7.2 million in his budget – but it is currently targeted only for community college students. We can all agree that this is a good use of money, but those students aren’t the only ones we need to be helping. We have a long way to go to restore the buying power of the typical MassGrant to its 2001 level, a further investment now for students at our four year public and private colleges is also warranted.This state’s economic vitality is based on the industries that need smart educated people the most: Hospitals, high tech and biotech firms, engineering outfits and research institutions. Every student we help to stay in a Massachusetts college or university is not just another potential taxpayer, but a potential patent holder, startup entrepreneur and employer. Washington has sent a strong message: Scholarships and grants are the best investments we can make for our families and for our future.
Richard Doherty is President of the Association for Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts (AICUM), representing 57 independent colleges and universities throughout the Commonwealth.