Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse advocates keeping Pell Grants at RIC forum

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse
Camden O'Brien has been living on his own since he was 17. Though he had no one to help with the expenses of college, higher education has always been important to him. Without help from a Pell Grant, he would not be able to attend RIC.

Pell Grants, need-based awards provided to undergraduate students from low-income households, promote access to college education across the nation. This year, $12.5 million in Pell funding was given to approximately 3,000 RIC students, accounting for about one-third of the student body.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) spoke to the importance of maintaining Pell Grant funding, in the face of severe federal budget cuts, at a recent roundtable discussion on Nov. 21 in the Faculty Center South.

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The majority of RIC students attending were first-generation, full-time students working two or more jobs just to pay for college. Without the Pell Grant, higher education would not have been an option for them.

“Rhode Island College has helped nurse me to become the person I am today,” O’Brien said. “It is thanks to the [Pell] Grant that I have evolved from a parentless child to an independent individual.”

Claiborne Pell, a Rhode Island senator who served six terms from 1961-1997, created the Pell Grant in the 1970s. The grant paid an average of 75 percent of a student’s tuition when it was created, Whitehouse said, but now accounts for only about 32 percent.

“There are plenty of places that we can solve our budget problems without having to go after the Pell Grant,” said Whitehouse, who recently worked with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Sen. John Tester (D-MO) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) to present a colloquy urging Congress to protect Pell Grants.

For many students, Pell Grants are only one piece of a financial aid package that allows them the opportunity to pursue higher education, said Whitehouse.

Travis Escobar, president of the RIC student government, is a first-generation student who receives Pell funding. Many of his younger family members want to follow his example and go to college someday, he said. Escobar cited his concern not only with Pell reductions for the current generation, but for future generations.

By visiting local college campuses, Whitehouse says he is able to make the pitch to Congress to protect Pell funding by using real-life stories from students in his state. If students were unable to attend the discussion, Whitehouse urged them to write letters about their experiences.

“When you tell your colleagues that there is a person from Rhode Island who is on their way to college and who is accomplishing these things … and they couldn’t have done it without the Pell Grant, that is very real,” said Whitehouse. “That is very concrete, and it is very effective.”

Travis Escobar, left, president of the RIC student body, speaks with Whitehouse.
The inability for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as the Super Committee, to reach an agreement on federal cuts by the Nov. 23 deadline, has resulted in an automatic $1.2 trillion in cuts, as cited in the 2011 Budget Control Act. Cuts will be made to military and domestic programs over a period of 10 years, beginning in fiscal year 2013.

Therefore, Whitehouse said that he believes there is no immediate danger regarding a decrease in Pell funding, since the program is exempt from cuts in 2013. However Pell Grants will again be subject to cuts by the Appropriations Committee beginning in 2014.

“There are an immense number of human stories about people who have a dream about themselves, and have a dream about this country,” said Whitehouse. “They know what difference a college education can make.”

O’Brien, Escobar and other RIC students who attended the Pell Grant discussion, commended Whitehouse’s efforts to protect the grants, because without them, hundreds of students wouldn’t be able to take advantage of a higher education.