WASHINGTON – To ease tuition sticker-shock, President Bush (search) wants to raise the maximum Pell Grant (search) award by $500 over the next five years and fix a persistent shortfall in the nation's chief college aid program.
That would put the maximum grant at $4,550 by 2010, up 12 percent from the $4,050 offered today.
The White House declined to say whether the president wants to increase the grants received by more than 5 million low-income students, but congressional and education officials familiar with the details of his proposal said Bush will call for raising the Pell Grant award $100 a year for five years.
"The president has been strongly committed to Pell Grants and ensuring that more students are eligible," deputy White House press secretary Trent Duffy said about remarks Bush was making Friday at Florida Community College at Jacksonville. "There is a serious shortfall in the program and the president is committed to addressing it."
News of an increase comes as Bush prepares to send a new budget to Congress next month that the administration promises will include cuts in domestic programs. Presidents frequently emphasize spending increases for politically popular programs in order to take the sting out of painful trimming they've done in the federal budget.
Pell Grants, the government's largest form of financial aid, help low-income students afford college. The grants range from $400 to $4,050, depending on students' financial need, their cost to attend school and whether they are enrolled part-time or full-time.
Norma Kent, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges (search), said an estimated 2 million students, or about one-third of all community college students, receive Pell Grants. Higher grants would be welcome relief from rising costs, she said.
In 2004, the average in-state tuition (search) at public, four-year colleges rose 10.5 percent to $5,132, according to the College Board. Tuition at two-year public colleges rose 8.7 percent to $2,076, and at private colleges rose 6 percent to $20,082.
The Pell Grant increase Bush was expected to propose, however, was shy of his pledge during the 2000 presidential campaign to raise the maximum award to $5,100. Despite soaring college costs, it's been stuck at $4,050 for three years.
"Four years after making — and breaking — a campaign promise to raise the value of the Pell Grant, I hope President Bush is finally willing to make good on that promise," Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, said in a statement issued Thursday.
"I also hope he is ready to offer a serious solution to the shortfall in funding for Pell Grants," Miller added. "My concern is that the president will rob Peter to pay Paul - increase money for Pell Grants by cutting funding for other important education programs. That is not a workable solution."
Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents colleges, said his group would be happy with any increase in the Pell Grant award, especially if it was coupled with eliminating a growing deficit in the program.
"If true, these proposals would mark the most significant development in the Pell Grant program since it was created 30 years ago," Hartle said. "The higher education community would vigorously applaud this action."
Regardless of congressional allocations to the Pell Grant program, all eligible students get the grant money they are entitled to receive each year, Hartle explained. Because the economy has not been robust in recent years and more people have gone off to college, the deficit has grown to roughly $4 billion, he said.
"It's a shortfall on paper, but when Congress looks to increase the Pell Grant they do so with the knowledge that the program is roughly $4 billion in the hole," he said. "Eliminating the shortfall would make it much easier for Congress to increase the maximum grant."
Although Congress did not raise the maximum grant last year, lawmakers did increase Pell Grant money by $458 million, to about $12.4 billion. However, Congress also decided not to block the Education Department from updating the tax deduction tables it uses to calculate aid eligibility.
If the department uses the updated tables, it would cause about 1 million prospective Pell Grant recipients to have their eligibility reduced by an average of $300, according to Brian Fitzgerald, staff director of the Advisory Committee on Financial Assistance, which advises Congress. The update would save the Pell program about $300 million a year.