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Don't Sell Out Pell Grants

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A short version of this piece appeared as a Letter to the Editor in the June 27, 2011 edition of Baton Rouge's The Advocate

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            As some in Congress take aim at education assistance, specifically Pell Grant, they should reorient their efforts toward fighting fraud and learning history. 

            Pell Grants are need-base awards given on a sliding income scale and provide financial assistance to thousands of Americans attempting to achieve an education.  

            Pell Grants are especially important to students attending technical school like those in Louisiana's Community and Technical College System.   LCTCS trains students to become the technical innovators and employees leading American manufacturing into the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries.   LCTCS and other technical, community, and traditional four-year colleges have helped Louisiana compete even in this recession.   As of April, Louisiana still had 8.1% unemployment, ranking 25th nationally. Compared to other "southern states," Louisiana ranks 3rd and show strong compared to neighboring Alabama's 9.3% and Mississippi's 10.4% unemployment.

LCTCS makes a bragging point of maintaining low tuition; LCTCS President, Joe May told National Public Radio, "We have what is, in effect, the second lowest tuition at these colleges in the country.   We're proud of that."

Pell Grants are not gifts from the government; they are an investment in America's future.   According to the U.S. Census Bureau, college graduates earn nearly one million dollars more than similar individuals with a high school diploma.   Those millions are reinvested in economic activity that provide government services and supports the businesses in their community.

  Furthermore, Pell Grants are an important part of maintaining America's global and economic leadership. Without educated individuals providing new solutions and innovations, America's economy will grow stagnant and our global presence will diminish.   If we, as a nation, fail to educate our own people, we will be handing over power and control of the global system ones that do: India, Brazil and China.

            Critics of the program claim it is easily abused by "Pell Runners;" individuals who repeatedly fail out of a school, lose their eligibility, and then move to a different school. Excess payments are given back to students to cover expenses like books and living costs; this is when the can abuse happens. Students with no intent on education take the money and never use it for school or related expenses. Concerns about abuse filter to the top as Joe May continues: "If our price is so low that people are abusing the system, we're very concerned about that."

            Pell Runners are a problem but how do we stop the abuse?   It really is not that complicated, identification information is required on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA,) the application required for Pell Grants.   Using these applications to detect and oust fraud is low-hanging fruit, especially when Pell Runners operate in a small geographic area.

            The Department of Education must partner with educational institutions to develop a "watch list" of potential Pell Runner and a "grant denial list" for known abusers.   These federal dollars are intended for students who will fully utilize their educational opportunity and become productive, contributing members of society - not for people who are just smart enough to figure out how to scam the system. Legislators need to keep their hands off this vital domestic program unless they plan to grow it.

            Many argue that America's Founding Fathers never envisioned a government that proved these services and programs.   They clearly were asleep in ninth grade history; education was fully supported by our Founding Fathers.   In 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Colonel Charles Yancey, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be"where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe."   Much of this letter involves Jefferson encouraging Yancey's patronage of their "central college."

            Education was a fundamental pillar to America's Revolution and employing generalized tactics of "small government" to decapitate this principle is one: ignorant, two: irresponsible, and three: Un-American.

            Protecting Pell Grants protects the educational institutions providing jobs in Louisiana and the state's competitive economic future but these grants have a larger reach than the just the Bayou State. Cultivating an educated American electorate and workforce is critical to America's future economic and global success. More importantly, it's imperative to maintaining American freedom and democracy.

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James Lewis is a former Senior Policy/National Security Analyst at the Washington-based think-tank, Robert Weiner Associates. He has also worked for Student Conservation Association as a Crew Leader engaging low-income urban students in a summer (more...)
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