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Let them eat cereal

Posted on February 19, 2011

At somewhere around 4:30 this morning, the House passed HR1, the budget that would keep government running until September and that would include$100b in cuts.  It would cut Pell Grants by $845 — Pell Grants go to the very poorest of college students — and 1.7m students would be dropped from the program.  The remaining 7.5m students would see a decrease in aid.  The proposed budget would also cut the SEOG program, taking aid away from millions more of our neediest students. 

This news comes in the same week that Governor Lynch proposed to cut ALL state grant aid to New Hampshire’s poorest college students, making us the first and only state in the nation without state grant support for poor college students.  The Governor also wants to raid a non-government fund, the Unique Scholarship Fund created by contributions from Fidelity Investment, to help cover the operating costs of the public institutions.

While cutting $3.5m in state grants to students, the Governor found $4m in new support for the state’s correction systems.  Is the irony lost on him?

I criticized the Governor’s proposed cuts on WMUR and in yesterday’s Union Leader op-ed piece and the public response from the Governor’s spokesman was that the grants to individuals were too small to make a difference.  I would like to invite the Governor to campus and introduce him to some of those students who receive state grants to ask if they think the grants are too small to make a difference.

About 90% of our students receive financial aid.  I receive many appeals from students whose parents have lost jobs or seen reduced hours and we this year increased our SNHU grant support from about $14m per year to $20m (more than five times the amount the state makes available to all NH students) in the face of unprecedented need.  Our students work too many hours as it is and I worry about the impact of 30 hour part-time jobs on academic performance and the ability to participate in student organizations, sports, and other campus activities.

For our neediest students, the cost of attending SNHU can be dramatically less than our “sticker” price after our institutional support, loans, grants, and work study.  A $1000 in grant aid might not seem like a lot to the Governor, but it might be 10% of a student’s actual  tuition.  It certainly covers the costs of books.  For families who are scraping by and working as much as they can, that $1000 might mean all sorts of painful trade offs — what bills get paid and what bills get more overdue, replacing a worn out tire or taking a chance it will hold a while longer, going without some basic in day to day life.  Sometimes that “small” grant is the last bit that makes a difference in whether to attend school or not.

Thinking that these amounts don’t make a difference demonstrates an abject and perhaps willful failure to appreciate what it means to be poor in this country.  Maybe the Governor has never gone too long putting up with a toothache a little longer, or finding new school clothes for one’s kids at Goodwill, or experiencing the countless daily small humiliations that come with having not enough no matter how hard you work. 

Last week I had a student write me a gracious, heartfelt letter that described her struggle to pay the remaining portion of her tuition bill.  I’ll call her Katie (not her real name).  Katie’s mom works retails and her dad’s business had slowed down.  She has a 3.8 GPA, is active in various student organizations, and worked work study and a part-time job.  She and her parents were willing to take on more debt (something I worry about a lot for our students), but they were denied given their family means.  She didn’t ask for money.  She asked me if there was anything she could do to cover the difference the financial gap.  I invited her to meet with me and I heard her story.  I also saw the dark circles under eyes and the worry in her voice.  I could not in good conscience ask her to work more, so I found scholarship money to cover the gap.

She practically broke down in my office from gratitude and relief. 

I have never shared this story publicly, but in the 1970s when I was an undergraduate at a state college, my father had a stroke and retired from his job as a stone mason.  I had paid my own way through college and in those days a full-time job in the summer and a work study job during the year could actually cover the costs.  I did both and I also worked as a stringer for the Westfield Evening News (making 35 cents a column inch — if I covered a selectman’s meeting and someone sneezed, I worked it into the story to get more copy).  My old 1965 Dodge Dart GT, still the best care I have ever owned, broke down and I couldn’t turn to my parents for help.  I lived off campus, renting a room from my editor, because it was cheaper, and went a week eating cereal three times a day to help save money (I think I went three years before I could look at Corn Flakes again and still don’t eat them).

Finally, I applied for food stamps.  I was a little ashamed and tried to go the store when no one else would see me use them (the program no longer covers college students thanks to Ronald Reagan, by the way).  I probably used them for a month or two until I could pay back the person who lent me money for my car repairs (without the car I couldn’t work).  I was young and optimistic and sort of breezed through the experience, hardly a scarring experience (though I still refuse to carry any credit card debt), but for that little bit of time I knew what it felt like to be wholly squeezed.  To not know how to get the basics.  Millions of people in this country are living that way not for a few weeks, but for months and years at a time.

The grants the state provided our poorest students might not seem very large to those facing huge budget deficits.  Cutting Pell Grants by $845 per student seems like a modest amount given the overall cost of an education, but it can only feel so to those lucky enough not to have to count every dollar and make those small trade-offs every day. It doesn’t feel that way to the millions of Katies whose lives can be transformed through education. 

Let this deficit-obsessed House first cut corporate welfare in the form of oil subsidies (while the oil companies enjoy windfall profits), agricultural subsidies, and defense (with the US accounting for 46.5% of the world’s military spending and China, our so-called “next threat,” a far distant second at 6.6%).  Let it simply raise the high end tax bracket back to the Clinton era 39% (when we actually debated what to do with our record surplus).  Let it end senseless wars of choice that have cost us a trillion dollars over the last ten years. Let it impose a small transaction tax on every stock transaction, no matter the howls of Wall Street.  Let it means test Social Security (I don’t care if you paid into the system, if you’re retirement income is more than $100k per year you surrender it).   Let it have the courage (I was tempted to use a more crass colloquialism here) to actually address health care costs, not just coverage.  Then, maybe then, if we still have to cut budgets we can ask our neediest people to sacrifice.

The Governor and the House should be ashamed of themselves.

10 thoughts on “Let them eat cereal

  1. Heather says:

    I am one of the “poor” students that relies on financial aid. If I lose what I get then I cannot afford to stay in school. If I cannot stay in school then after 6 months I have to start repaying what I owe so far and I simply can’t afford to do that while my daughter is so young. I take online classes so I can stay home and care for her, since the cost of daycare is what I would make working 40 hours a week. And quite frankly I think taking money from college students and applying it to inmates is B***S***! Invest money into those of us that are trying to make this country a better place, not driving it into the ground!

  2. Amy says:

    Very well said. Unfortunately, I understand all too well what it is like to be in many of the above mentioned situations.
    To say that taking away $845 of my Pell Grant isn’t a big deal is a load of bull. That $845 represents 2 or 3 semesters’ worth of books. Really?!? That isn’t a lot??? Try telling my daughter why we’ll be eating spaghetti for the 3rd time in a week so that Mommy can afford to by books.

  3. Bill Gillett says:

    If we as a nation and a state are concerned about our ability to compete in an increasingly flat and empowered world, if we are concerned about increasing wealth inequality and if we are concerned about creating a just society, we could do nothing worse in addressing these concerns than cutting support for education. We need much greater investment, not shortsighted acts that will cost us the vitality of a generation.

  4. Henry Drewal says:

    Thank you for such a clear, well argued, and passionate appeal to reason and good government, one that cares for those who struggle the most. I admire your courage and commitment and hope the mindless and misdirected Governor and House of NH come to their senses. America’s priorities must change dramatically if we are to survive.

  5. Ilene says:

    For the last 20 minutes I wrote a comment regarding how education is the way out of poverty, and what my father told me when I was 18 and thinking of not going to college, but I just deleted the lines.

    I deleted the lines on this comment page because I want to spend my very limited amount of free time writing to my Representatives from NH, who I believe all have college educations, as well as the Governor of NH, to tell them how I feel about cutting the entitlement of grants and loans.

    The Representatives should look at Social Security, Health Care and Defense spending and cut these first since it is the biggest expense for the federal government. The Governor needs to go to the jails and speak with the inmates to realize that a greater percentage are in there because of a lack of good education and having grown up in poverty.

  6. Jeff Penta says:

    This is only evidence that New Hampshire is out of touch with the realities of the benefits of a degree. In addition to these cuts, the governor also proposes eliminating the NH Post-Secondary commission effectively eliminating oversight of higher education in New Hampshire. In addition, NH sadly does not support their state run colleges as evidence of these institutions having the highest tuition rates in the country.

    This bill will effectively kill all of the work state educational leaders have made and the hurdles they had overcome. In 2009, NH students owe $29, 443 (http://projectonstudentdebt.org/files/pub/2010_SDR_NR.pdf) in student loans upon graduation. This ranks second highest in Federal Student Loan debt (this does not include graduate federal loans or undergraduate and graduate private student loan debt – which too many students are forced to rely on). This number will rise with the elimination of the limited state grants NH provides.

    At the federal level, reducing the Pell grant by the amount proposed might not seem like a reduction, however it will eliminate 1.9 million eligible families from receiving this benefit. Eliminating the SEOG program is significant as it provided a great amount of aid to SNHU students.

    I find it ironic when I hear stories of members of congress who share stories with how tough it was to get through college and the limited resources their families could provide. With the Pell grant being introduced as part of the Higher Education Act of 1965, more likely these same members of Congress had access to this grant and used it to cover expenses.

    Also, private institutions haven’t been asking for “handouts” from the government. Many have increased their aid significantly to students and have developed innovative, cost effective programs that work to reduce the overall cost of a traditional college degree. We have done and will continue to do our part to make education more affordable.

    With Stay Work Play, an initiative of Governor Lynch, NH encourages young professionals to return to the state to launch their careers. How would showing a blatant disregard for the value of higher education encourage young professionals to come back and launch a career?

    Eliminating these grants do more than cut costs. It continues to reaffirm that NH is a state that is better poised to take three steps backwards rather than a half step forward. As a state and a country, we cannot appease to the few while jeopardizing the future.

  7. Jane says:

    Bravo. Well said. While I usually roll my eyes at your posts (I’m truly not interested in your reviews of film or Broadway theatre) this topic is totally appropriate, well argued, and enlightening. Thank you.

  8. Paul Leblanc says:

    Ouch!

    Jane, you are really not going to like the next ten posts (reviews of The Lion King; Phantom; Cats; The Producers; Evita; as well as The King’s Speech; True Grit; The Social Network; Inception; and The Fighter).

    You’ll need an optometrist when I’m done.

  9. Stephen Zampino says:

    Why is the cost of education so expensive? Why do books cost so much? Why does campus housing cost so much? As a society, we accept ‘higher costs’ for the things we value however, the costs continue to increase until, there are no more takers because the cost has exceeded the price point set by the demand. The more funding provided to fill the gap, the higher the cost continues to rise. So funding the gap is a bit of a double edge sword. When is enough really enough? It is easy to tell someone with a lot that they don’t need more and should share with the less fortunate but at what point do you stop taking and/or stop giving. We have become a nation of entitlement sentiment. Unfortunately the resolution to our nations problems like Education, Governement Spend, Healthcare, etc.. is going to be tough. A good visual for the challenge with solving the problem is imagining your wrist handcuffed to steel pole in a room that will soon (minutes) be engulfed in flames where there is a Hacksaw within reach…There is no time to saw through the steel pole or handcuffs but you can easily hack through your wrist in enough time. What do you do? Both options suck. Net/Net – if we don’t endure the pain and the loss of a hand, our nation is on a path where we may soon wake up in a very different world….. Just a few thoughts I felt I would share. BTW – looking foward to the review of the King’s Speech – haven’t seen that yet but heard great things.

  10. Bo Yerxa says:

    Hi Paul,

    By any chance did your Dodge have a slant six engine???

    My “college cah” was a ’62-63 Dodge that I bought in ’67 for $500, because it needed a transmission. Fixed it myself with a manual tranny I bought for $75 (so had “3 on the floor” rather than the push-button transmission it came with). I put 160-170K miles on that slant six…

    Though I started at university with several years tuition in the bank from breeding/selling registered Holstein cows and my own potato operation (2 of the 60+/- acres of that fine vegetable my family grew annually), I also worked all the way through my undergrad program. Most of my sophomore year I worked as a short-order cook, an Electrolux salesman, and a work-study job…

    Bo

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