- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 1, 2005

A couple of days before Christmas, thousands of the nation’s college students found someone

left a big lump of coal in their backpacks. Just call him President Scrooge.

Yes, for a man who likes to call himself an education president, it didn’t take George W. Bush long to break one of his proudest education promises. As recently as his final debate with Sen. John Kerry, the president promised to “continue to expand Pell Grants to make sure people have an opportunity to start their career with a college diploma.”

That sounded great. I like presidents to talk about improving educational opportunities. Take it from me, children, nothing beats a good education in distinguishing the movers and shakers of this world from those who get moved and shaken.

The federal Pell Grants have been a spectacular success for poor and middle-income young people who might otherwise not quite be able to afford college. Almost all the 5.3 million Pell recipients come from families earning less than $40,000 a year who, as any college student’s parent can tell you, face a steep climb. College costs rose 14 percent last year alone.

One federal study in the mid-1990s found a mere $1,000 increase in the average Pell Grant would raise undergraduate retention at least 15 percent. Considering the overall social benefits of an educated population, that seems a bargain.

But two days before Christmas, the Bush administration gave those struggling students an unwelcome surprise: a new Pell Grant eligibility formula that will knock 80,000 to 90,000 students off the eligibility rolls in 2005 and slash grants to 1.3 million others, according to two studies. (Congress’ Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance did one of the analyses. The other came from the American Council on Education, representing about 1,800 colleges and universities.)

Happy holidays, kids.

Yet, the administration, its allies in the Republican-dominated Congress and its predictable cheerleaders in conservative talk radio insist Pell Grants will, as Mr. Bush said in his debate and in his convention acceptance speech, “continue to expand.”

How? Well, to paraphrase an earlier president, it all depends on what your definition of “expand” is.

Total Pell Grant recipients are expected to grow because the overall demand is growing. But some students will find their grants reduced or eliminated because the administration and Congress chose to update for the first time since 1988 the figures for state taxes on which eligibility is based.

That means, the more your state cut its taxes during the 1990s economic boom, the more likely your household will be viewed as too wealthy — on paper, anyway — to receive federal college aid, even though most state’s taxes have been rising again in recent years.

The Education Department first proposed the formula change in 2003 for fiscal 2004, but legislation pushed by Sen. Jon Corzine, New Jersey Democrat, blocked its implementation.

This year, the Bush administration pushed the Republican-led Congress to allow the changes. Rep. John Boehner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Education and Work Force Committee, got the Corzine amendment dropped when Congress passed its omnibus spending bill in mid-November.

The formula change will cost some families but save the government $300 million in the 2005-2006 academic year, the administration estimates. That by itself sounds like a lot of money, but it sounds pretty puny next to the spending bill’s $388 billion price tag, the $400-plus billion deficit or the $1.9 trillion — with a “t” and an “r” — that the Bush tax cuts are expected to cost in revenue reductions over the next 10 years.

With that in mind, the president’s contraction of the reach of Pell Grants would not sound so cynical had he not promised so often to “expand” them. As far back as his 2000 campaign, Mr. Bush proposed raising the maximum award to $5,100. Instead, the maximum grant will remain at $4,050 a year in 2005, unchanged for the third consecutive year.

Yet Mr. Bush gets away with this wordplay as smoothly as Humpty Dumpty in “Alice Through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

But all is not lost for young folks seeking federal help with their college costs. For example, the military is offering some generous education packages — and it looks like there’s going to be lots of Defense Department spending for some time.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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