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Who Really Punted on Pell?

Pell Grants to help students from low-income families pay for college face a $58 billion shortfall over the next decade — even though the Congressional Budget Office says the program’s costs will remain flat during that period — because the way Congress has funded them in recent years has made the costs appear artificially low.

The New America Foundation had harsh words recently for President Obama’s proposal to begin addressing Pell’s funding gap, while praising the approach in the House-passed budget from Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan:

The president punted on a long-term plan to shore up Pell Grants because he could be criticized for making tough choices. Then, when House Republicans put out a feasible, gimmick-free Pell Grant proposal that makes tough choices (i.e., cuts to other aid programs and eligibility changes) needed to fund the program for the long-term, the president didn’t attempt to work with them, but lambasted them instead.

As our new report shows, it’s fair to say that the President has not yet made the tough choices necessary to put Pell Grant funding on a sound long-term footing.  But New America is wrong to say the Ryan budget has secured the program’s future.

Just the opposite: the Ryan budget almost triples the Pell shortfall — to $161 billion — at the same time it imposes cuts that would make fewer lower-income students eligible for the grants and scale back the grants for students who still receive them.  That’s because the budget would cut Pell funding by more than $150 billion over the next ten years.

In contrast, the Obama budget covers Pell funding needs for the short term and avoids benefit or eligibility cuts that could make college less affordable for many low-income students, while reducing the shortfall modestly to $51 billion.

If shrinking the gap to $51 billion is a “punt” because the shortfall does not reach zero, isn’t increasing the shortfall an even bigger punt?  If policymakers had their own Ray Guy award (given annually to college football’s top punter), it would go to Chairman Ryan, not President Obama.