Saving the Future

By Judith Maxwell Greig, Ph.D.
Notre Dame de Namur University

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, a Nobel-prize winning economist, recently used the phrase “Eat the Future” to refer to the effects of some of the proposals that were being made to cut the federal budget. While he wasn’t talking specifically about the debates in Washington and Sacramento over aid to education, he could well have been. For it seems that whenever deficits become an issue, politicians of all stripes choose to follow the same prescription and propose cuts that will compromise the future of today’s youth and, in doing so, seriously affect our ability as a nation to maintain leadership in an ever more competitive marketplace.

The debate today is over the future of the federal Pell Grants and California’s Cal Grants, both of which provide funds that are essential to the ability of many students from middle and lower-income families to attend college. Over the last 35 years these two programs have helped millions of California students attend college. Without them many of those millions would not have received a higher education and, as a result, would have seen their lifetime earnings significantly reduced. As devastating as that would have been to the personal lives of these students, imagine how such a collective loss would have affected the rest of society. How does one even begin to calculate the loss to the economy that would have occurred had those millions not been able to obtain a college education?  What new companies would never have been created? How many new jobs would that have robbed from this state?   How would their lower incomes have impacted the overall growth of California’s economy?  We may never know for certain. But one thing we do know for certain is that we would not have been better off if those students had never received a college degree.

While no one is presently proposing the complete elimination of either of these programs, both are clearly in danger and nothing short of a legislative miracle will prevent some cuts from happening this year. Even President Obama is proposing cuts in the Pell Grant program totaling nearly $5 billion over the next 10 years. The danger of course is that once our leaders begin the process of trimming back these programs no one knows where it will end.

Admittedly the cost of the Pell Grant program has risen sharply in the past several years, but much of that growth—40 percent according to the Obama administration— is due to the recession and resulting unemployment rate that still hovers near 10 percent. Many of the students who have received Pell Grants in the last two years are people who were laid off when the economy crashed.

For NDNU students the consequences of such cuts in aid could be far reaching indeed. NDNU is a private university and almost all of our students rely on some form of grant aid, as do about a million other California college students.  In addition many also rely on loans, some subsidized by the federal government and some unsubsidized. Last year more than 300 NDNU students received Pell Grants totaling $1.28 million and Cal Grants totaling $1.2 million. Elimination of or substantial reductions in that aid would be devastating for a large number of our students, especially those from the most economically disadvantaged families, who have no way to make up that shortfall. Most of them are already working part-time and most are already receiving a substantial amount of aid directly from the university. The same is true for most students attending private institutions today.

Why should the average taxpayer care about the impact of these cuts on private schools? Precisely because private schools like NDNU provide an important safety valve for the public system.  We accommodate tens of thousands of students who would otherwise flood state campuses, increasing pressure on the state system even more. What’s more, we educate these students at a far lower cost to taxpayers than students at state-run universities and colleges.

In 1960 the California Master Plan for Higher education was approved by the state legislature and signed into law by Gov. Pat Brown. One of that plan’s underlying principles was that some form of higher education ought to be available to all regardless of their economic means.  It is programs like the Pell Grant and the Cal Grant that make that principle a reality for millions of our sons and daughters. Are we, as a society, really ready to abandon that commitment?