- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2007

The federal Pell Grant program, which provides college money to low-income families, would receive the largest boost in funding in more than 30 years under President Bush’s 2008 budget plan to be released Monday.

Mr. Bush is proposing to raise the maximum grant level awarded by $550 next year to $4,600, the biggest one-time boost since the program was created in the mid-1970s. His proposal would increase the grants to $5,400 over five years, the largest five-year increase ever.

“Higher education costs have made it more difficult for low- and middle-income families to afford college,” Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said yesterday. “States, institutions and the federal government must work together to increase need-based aid. The president’s call for a Pell Grant increase will achieve this goal.”

The proposal probably will meet with skepticism from some conservatives who say the government already is pouring an exorbitant amount of money into higher education.

But the government has been under pressure to help more because rising college costs are making it increasingly difficult for some to attend college. Unlike student loans, the grants do not have to be repaid.

Democrats and some Republicans have long called for such a sizable Pell Grant increase. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy praised Mr. Bush’s proposed increase but said it’s only happening because Democrats are now in charge of Capitol Hill.

“This welcome development shows how a Democratic Congress is changing the nation’s priorities,” said the Massachusetts Democrat, who leads the Senate’s education panel. “For the past five years of Republican control, Congress failed to hold the president accountable for his broken promise to increase Pell Grants.”

Mr. Kennedy said he sent a letter to the administration in October, demanding a Pell Grant increase and complaining that it hadn’t been increased in five years. He also pointed out his own proposal to immediately boost the maximum Pell Grant level to $5,100.

The House earlier this week approved a massive spending bill left over from last year, that also includes a boost for the maximum Pell Grant award — by $260 to $4,310 — which Mr. Bush’s proposal exceeds.

Administration officials wouldn’t say how much their Pell proposal is estimated to cost for five years, indicating that information would be available Monday when the budget is released.

About 5.2 million students receive Pell Grants each year, but the amount of each grant varies by need.

One House Republican aide said Mr. Bush’s Pell proposal will probably be “embraced” by most Republicans, but that ultimately, Congress must find a way to curb the rising cost of college or no amount of financial aid will be enough.

Mrs. Spellings agrees and has been touting reforms recommended by her bipartisan Commission on the Future of Higher Education. She’ll convene a summit next month to discuss the topic and said yesterday that part of reform is demanding more transparency and accountability from colleges and universities.

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