- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2004

Republicans and Democrats disagree over the impact of using more current tax information to determine student eligibility for popular Pell college grants, now funded at their highest level in history.

Republicans say a Bush administration plan to use tax information from 2001 or later to determine which students are eligible for the $12.8 billion college-aid program would permit more students from poor families to get Pell grants, currently about $4,050 a year. The grants do not have to be repaid.

Using tax tables from 1988 to determine eligibility for the program was required by an amendment to prevent changes last year offered by Sen. Jon Corzine, New Jersey Democrat.

The requirement “effectively cheats the poorest students in America,” said Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Mr. Boehner succeeded in getting the Corzine amendment dropped when Congress passed a $388 billion omnibus spending bill last week.

Democrats say the Education Department’s move to use more current tax information would cause as many as 84,000 students whose parents earn between $35,000 and $40,000 a year to become ineligible for Pell grants.

“The department’s changes are unfair, as they decrease the credit families get for paying state and local taxes at a time when those taxes are going up,” Mr. Corzine said.

“The timing of the department’s actions couldn’t be any worse, as tuition is rising sharply across the country, particularly at public colleges and universities,” Mr. Corzine said.

However, Mr. Boehner and other Republicans note that the Pell grant program has a shortfall of $3.7 billion, even though yearly spending has risen from $10 billion in 2001 to an estimated $12.8 billion this year and 2005.

The reason for the shortfall is that use of outdated 1988 tax tables increases grant eligibility for students from families making more money, Mr. Boehner said.

The changes would make about $300 million available annually “to protect those needy students who are truly eligible for Pell grants,” the Ohio Republican said.

“If the department continues to use the 1988 tables, it’s conceivable the current Pell grant budget shortfall will be deepened by hundreds of millions of dollars, and as a result it may be many years before Congress can again increase the maximum Pell grant award that goes to our nation’s neediest students,” he said.

President Bush has said he wants to increase the maximum yearly Pell grant to $5,100.

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