Student aid plummets as expenses continue to increase

College costs continue to rise and federal funding is shortchanging those in need, with Pell Grant funding dropping almost $1 billion in a single year.

The federal government’s Pell Grant program awards grants based on a financial need formula. Funding for Pell Grants in the 2004-2005 fiscal year totaled $13.6 billion.

That amount of funding dropped to $12.7 billion in 2005-2006, according to the College Board’s annual review of college costs and financial aid.

The study also found that, although the increase in average tuition at four-year public colleges in 2005-2006 slowed for the third year in a row, the cost of college is still up 35 percent compared to five years ago.

The total aid given to students in 2005-2006 was $134.8 billion, an increase of 3.7 percent. However, federal grant aid decreased, as the average recipient of a Pell Grant received $120 less than they would have a year earlier. That amount does not take into account the past year’s inflation.

The federal government is not alone in its declining support of higher education. In recent years, states have cut funding for higher education during economic recessions and not increased it after those recessions have ended.

Luke Swarthout, a higher education advocate for the State Public Interest Research Groups, said in a conference call Tuesday that college affordability is a key pocketbook concern that may motivate voters at the polls next week.

“The federal government hasn’t kept their end of the bargain up,” Swarthout said. “The Pell Grant has been frozen at $4000. The buying power of the grant has gone down.”

He said that paying for college is likely the largest and most challenging investment people have to make over the course of their lifetimes.

“College affordability is the top issue in voting decisions for young voters,” said Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners, a Democratic polling group.

Lake mentioned a recent survey of 650 18-30 year olds in which 80 percent said that college affordability was a top issue in their voting decision.

Seventy percent of voters said that they had not heard enough in this election year about college affordability. Three out of four said that college affordability would be an issue.

The poll showed that two thirds of voters believe that the government is doing too little to make college affordable.

“Anyway you measure it, half to three-quarters of voters say that higher education is being priced outside their financial range,” said Lake.

As tuition costs continue to rise, so do the costs of attending four-year public colleges. The average costs for in-state students at public institutions for tuition, fees, and room and board are $12,796 a year. That does not include other costs.

“These are issues that are evident to students every time they get a bill from the university and are forced to take out loans and pay ridiculous prices for textbooks at university bookstores,” said Trevor Montgomery, a senior at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Montgomery served as the student body president at his school and also serves in the Illinois National Guard. Even with grants he receives from the military, he still has over $20,000 in student loan debts.

He hopes that leaders will start addressing the issues on state and national levels because the increasing gap between the cost of education and the availability of loans, it is becoming even less affordable for students to attend college.

“The government sees the war in Iraq and terrorism as the top issues and they are not focusing on higher education right now,” said Lake.

She pointed out that it is not just young people who are concerned with higher education funding, but that older voters also tend to think that it is an issue that has not been talked about enough.

“People believe that higher education is important for our economy,” she said, and that “a solid majority of voters believe that our next generation will not be as well as this one.”

The Lake Research Group poll showed that 40 percent of voters are more likely to vote Democratic because of the issue of funding for higher education, while only 11 percent said that they are more likely to vote Republican.

Those numbers could determine which party is in control of Congress for the next few years.

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