Uncertainties over US aid vex students

Troy Hurt needs $7,000 in aid to attend University of Massachusetts Boston. Troy Hurt needs $7,000 in aid to attend University of Massachusetts Boston. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Mary Carmichael
Globe Staff / July 22, 2011

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In Washington yesterday, rumors of a budget deal were swirling, but in Boston, Troy Hurt was too busy to pay much attention. He was on his way to the financial aid office at the University of Massachusetts Boston, trying to find out if he would have a federally funded work-study job for his upcoming junior year. He needed one as part of the $7,000 he was expecting in aid, which was supposed to include a grant from the Pell program.

Had he heard that Republicans had proposed a 45 percent cut in Pell Grants as a way of trimming the national debt? Yes. Had anyone at the UMass aid office explained exactly what that might mean for him? “No one’s talked to me about it at all,’’ he said.

For many college students and administrators, the only financial certainty over the last few months has been the presence of uncertainty.

The debate over the debt ceiling is having “a ripple effect across higher education,’’ said Brandon Busteed, president of Outside the Classroom, whose parent company contracts with colleges to teach students about financial issues.

If the government goes into default, federal funds for everything from student aid to scientific research could temporarily dry up, forcing administrators to shuffle discretionary funds on the fly.

“We do have dollars we could move around on a short-term basis,’’ said Bob Caret, the new president of the UMass system. “But if the spigot gets shut off and there’s no long-term sense that it’s going to come back on - we’re hoping that doesn’t come to pass.’’

Jean Morrison, provost at Boston University, said a short-term loss of research dollars would have little effect, but “over a long enough time period, we’d have to either shrink the research enterprise or pick up some of the costs internally.’’

Assuming that Congress and the White House do reach an agreement before the Aug. 2 deadline, higher education could still feel the brunt of a compromise, especially from cuts to the Pell program, which is clearly in the cross hairs of some members of Congress.

“Students make plans based on Pell Grants,’’ Morrison said. “They’re real dollars that support real people.’’

BU is having trouble assessing the potential impact on students, she added, because the debt negotiations are “dragging on. It’s irritating, frankly.’’

Pell Grants, which provide a maximum of $5,550 and aim to help low-income families, cover just one-third of tuition on average. They are nonetheless the cornerstone of federal financial aid and enable many students to attend college who lack the means otherwise.

Danielle Cole, 24, has been working her way through school for seven years, first part time at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, then full time at UMass Lowell. The entire way, she has been buoyed by Pell. “Without the program, I don’t think I’d have been able to go to school,’’ she said.

The grants have become a hot button in debt negotiations. In April, a Montana congressman took heat for calling them “the welfare of the 21st century.’’

Supporters of the grants have been no less fierce. The financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz has said that proposed cuts could lead to school shutdowns and student riots.

The Pell program typically expands during lean economic times as families struggle to balance their own budgets and more laid-off workers return to school. The program covered some 8.1 million students last year, almost 22,000 of them in Massachusetts.

Nationally, enrollment has jumped 56 percent since 2006, and all four undergraduate UMass campuses have seen dramatic increases. At UMass Boston, for example, 32 percent of students received Pell aid in 2008; last year, it had risen to about 38 percent.

The program’s costs have ballooned accordingly. The Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan analysis group that advises Congress, estimates that if no changes are made to the program, the fiscal 2012-13 budget will require $34.2 billion in Pell funding, about $11 billion more than this year.

If that $11 billion is eliminated in debt negotiations, “there’s no way that the neediest students won’t be hit’’ no matter how the cuts are structured, said Jose Cruz, vice president of the Education Trust, a Washington nonprofit that will launch a Save Pell campaign Monday.

The loss of Pell funds would affect not just students but colleges that increasingly rely on federal financial programs in an era of dwindling state support.

Small private schools would see losses as well. “Any change would be significant for our overall budget,’’ said Karen Gross, president of Southern Vermont College, where more than 40 percent of students are eligible to receive Pell aid.

The Pell program has been in flux the last 16 months. Its maximum award was increased last year to $5,550, but in April one type of grant, intended to support summer studies, was eliminated.

The possibility of even more changes has left college students as well as administrators feeling whiplashed.

At the annual meeting of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, held in Boston this week, audience members erupted in frustration at a panel with Department of Education representatives. “Our members are trying to implement hundreds of pages of new student-loan regulations. They’ve had to cut services to students just to keep up with that administrative burden,’’ said association president Justin Draeger. “At the same time, they’re dealing with this unprecedented uncertainty.’’

The same goes for students like Hurt, 23. If the Pell funding disappears, he has a tentative plan to pursue scholarships he has heard about through student groups. But, he added, “What about the students who don’t even know what other resources are available?’’

Carmichael can be reached at