William Green: Congress shouldn't gamble with student aid

If you have any connection to federal student aid, whether through the work study program or various grants, the sequester – or large federal spending cuts across the board – could directly affect you.

In the aftermath of the 2011 debt ceiling crisis, Congress proposed a series of steep budget cuts and tax increases to take effect this year that would serve as a deadline for forging some sort of compromise on the federal budget.

Facing this loaded gun of economic danger, Congress compromised last month on the issue of tax rates. But they couldn’t agree on spending cuts and ultimately delayed their onset.

As a result, massive spending cuts are set to take effect March 1, unless Congress can cut through the gridlock and compromise.

Tell your representative in Congress that, in a time when a college education is so vital to a person’s economic future, we can’t afford cuts to programs that make equal opportunity to education possible.

If they’re not averted, these spending cuts will affect nearly every division of government, including the Office of Federal Student Aid, an office within the Department of Education. Congress must act to avert these cuts, or the student aid that so many young people across the country rely on will vanish, crippling a generation and in turn, endangering the economic future of America.

GW students are no strangers to debt: The average GW graduate in 2011 came away with $32,714 worth, according to the Project on Student Debt. And 45 percent of the student body graduated with some form of debt that same year.

The Office of Federal Student Aid is the largest provider of student aid in the country. Its aid includes Federal Work-Study funds and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, among other forms. But these departments would be slashed by $49 million and $37 million, respectively, if the sequester were to take effect.

And while Pell Grants are protected from cuts in the short term, “sequestration is a multi-year process and does not protect Pell beyond the first year,” according to a September 2012 report issued by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

About 1,480 GW students received Pell Grants last year, The Hatchet reported in September. And as the cost of college grows, the number of students relying on Pell Grants is bound to increase – which makes it more frightening that these grants may soon be at risk.

Other forms of aid would not be immune from these cuts. The origination fee for both Stafford Loans and parent loans for undergraduate students would increase, making it harder for students and their families to obtain the grants they need to help offset the costs of a college degree.

And in addition to direct cuts to aid, the entire aid infrastructure of the Department of Education would be crippled and slowed if it and its affiliated nonprofits were forced to furlough employees. Not only would such a move put students at risk for being unable to receive their aid in time for enrollment, it would “significantly harm the department’s ability to prevent fraud, waste and abuse in the very large, complex student-financial-assistance programs,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan testified Feb. 14 to a Senate committee.

Limiting the government’s ability to protect itself from fraud and ensure its funds are spent is not a responsible cost-cutting measure. In fact, firing or furloughing employees might even ensure greater spending over time, as future administrations would be forced to pick up the bureaucratic pieces.

College students looking for a reason to get involved in politics won’t find a more relevant issue than the impact of sequestration on student aid funding.

Students have a responsibility to act. It's time they honor that duty.

William Green is a junior majoring in American studies.

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