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P resident Barack Obama unveiled his budget plan last week, and like most things involving him, it was accompanied by a fair amount of noise — this time, over the fact that the President froze non-defense, non-security discretionary spending. And (probably like most of you), I’m a little unclear on what that means. One thing I’m thrilled about, though, is Obama’s desire to expand the Pell Grant program for college students. It’s about damn time.

Pell Grants, started in the 1970s, are federal grant aimed at helping low-income students pay for college. According to Campus Progress, the youth arm of the liberal Center for American Progress, in the 1970s, a grant could cover about 76 percent of the cost of a four-year public university. But by 2006 — as funding had not always kept pace with inflation, which college-tuition increases completely outpaced — it covered only 33 percent. Currently, the maximum award stands at $5,350.

Students have to make up the difference themselves — and, frequently have to rely on student loans, often piling their debt up to unhealthy levels or causing them to forgo an education because it’s just too expensive. To combat this, Obama has proposed tying the the maximum-award increase to inflation, not funding, and making the program an entitlement, meaning it’s not susceptible to the whimsy of Congressional appropriations.

The new proposals couldn’t have come at a more critical time. At Penn, according to Student Financial Aid Director Bill Schilling, 1,350 students received Pell Grants this year, up from 1,065 students the year before. Nationwide, according to the Department of Education, more than 7 million students received a grant in 2009, an increase of about 1.5 million students over the previous year. Why? Like the answer to most questions these days, it’s the economy, stupid.

Right now, many families are stretched financially, many people are returning to school because of the bad job market and schools have been squeezed due to endowment drops and state budget cuts. Thus, “it’s a pretty tight spot for a lot of schools,” said Pedro de la Torre, an advocacy senior associate at Campus Progress.

“Folks need as much help as possible right now, and that’s going to be the case for a while” de la Torre added. “College was already becoming more and more unaffordable before the recession, and [the recession] just makes [the increase] even more pressing.”

Part of what makes me enthusiastic about Obama’s proposal is making the program a federal entitlement. It’s therefore given the necessary funding, ensuring everyone receives a grant of the amount they qualify for. During the Bush years, the maximum award was often frozen or cut, despite rising tuition and inflation. Making the increases mandatory would give Congress — or, presumably, a future president — very little room to interfere with award levels.

“If they’re an entitlement, [awards] would presumably increase unless we had a period of deflation,” Schilling explained.

Granted, the change won’t do much for Penn students because the University covers all of a student’s determined need. But the number of schools that actually do that is just “ a drop in the bucket,” according to de la Torre. These schools are usually the wealthiest and, correspondingly, the most selective.

Obama’s proposal won’t magically fix the affordability issue in American higher education. States are still having trouble funding public universities while maintaining reasonable tuition levels — just look at California’s problems earlier this year. Tuition at private schools is still out of reach for many students; while it’s being wrestled into submission, the student-loan industry is still a menacing, and powerful, force. But it’s a step. One that we need to take.

Alyssa Schwenk is a College senior from Ottumwa, Iowa. She is the former Editorial Page Editor of the DP and Editor of The Report Card. Her e-mail address is That’s What Schwenk Said appears on Mondays.

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