Five presidents of U.S. colleges and universities today voiced heavy criticism of cuts in federal higher education programs being considered by Congress in the next week.
The presidents--Douglas Bennett of Earlham College (Ind.), Michael McCall of Kentucky Community and Technical College, David Shi of Furman College (S.C.), William Troutt of Rhodes College (Tenn.), and John Welty of California State University, Fresno-decried the proposed cuts as a "raid on student aid."
The reductions, the highest since the Newt Gingrich-led congressional budgets of the mid-1990s, will have student aid programs "careening toward calamity," said David Warren, co-chair of the Student Aid Alliance, who moderated a teleconference with the presidents.
On Wednesday, the House Education Committee will mark up an additional $7.5 billion in cuts to the student loan program, which will bring the total student aid cuts to $16 billion.
Student aid programs are in the midst of a "perfect fiscal storm" of deficit reduction, tax cuts, and hurricane relief efforts, said Warren. "The house education committee has been asked to make the largest single contribution to deficit reduction among all of the appropriation programs in the country--larger than defense, larger than homeland security, larger than interior," he said. "These fiscal and budgetary efforts are being introduced on the backs of students."
Bennett said he's already seeing the effect aid cuts have had on students. "As federal support declines, we are putting more institutional aid in play from our operating budget and our endowment," he said. "Increasingly, I'm seeing students doing slightly desperate things to pay their college bills," said Bennett, such as going into deep credit card debt, working jobs that pay little, or dropping out altogether because they can't afford to pay back loans.
"The key to a viable economy is a better educated citizenry," Bennett said, "and we're watching the congress disinvest in education. It's crazy."
With state aid leveling or declining, schools are being forced to pass on more of the cost of education to the students directly, said McCall. The cuts will hit hardest those who need it most. "They are the low-income, or first-generation college students who need that education."
Shi said the trend of diminishing federal support will have "cascading consequences" in coming years, especially as the disproportionately large Latino and African-American population comes of college age. "It flies in the face of our strenuous efforts to make college more accessible to minorities and students from low-income families."
Warren defended the panel's "raid on student aid" rhetoric, which Republican lawmakers have criticized as misplaced. "I think I'm being descriptive of what's happening," Warren said. "There is a raid on the student-loan program. Those dollars in the program are for the purposes of student loans in one form or another as a subsidy to the students or a subsidy to the banks and lenders. Those monies are being raided out of the student-loan program and put to tax cuts and to deficit reduction and otherwise. I think there is no other way to characterize that."
"One of the drivers for the proposed cuts in student aid is to pay for hurricane relief, and I appreciate that, but I think it's worth noting that Katrina has hit a lot of colleges and students pretty hard. We see that first hand." As hurricane-effected students go "from full-pay to full-need," he said, "the timing for cuts in student financial aid--especially for this population-could not come at a worse time."
Welty said that about 70 percent of the students at Fresno are first-generation students and the cuts could not be worse for their students. "We should be talking about an increase in Pell Grants, rather than a decrease in other aid."
Colleges and universities are participating in a national phone drive to tell Congress to stop the cuts, Warren said. A toll-free number (800-574-4AID) is in operation that will connect callers to the Capital switchboard and their state representatives and senators.