Congressional leaders are pondering all sorts of ways to reduce the federal budget, including changes to the Pell grant program, which provides low-income students access to college. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley says the proposed changes would freeze the amount of money dedicated to the program and cap the number of students who would get grants. Grassley emphasizes, it’s not a cut.

“They capped Pell grants where it is right now,” Grassley says. “What we don’t know and the extent to which people could be impacted is going to depend upon whether there’s more applications for Pell grants that what is presupposed in the last appropriations bill.” When there are fluctuations in spending, Grassley says, the word “cut” is sometimes used when it’s inaccurate.

Grassley says, “Just because they cap it, people are saying, ‘Well, it’s cut,’ but it’s not really cut until you get more people applying for it and you get a zero sum gain when it’s capped, and then each person may get a little bit less.” The federal government spent nearly 15-billion dollars on Pell grants in 2008. With the nation’s economic downturn and more unemployed people returning to college, the money devoted to Pell grants last year more than doubled — to 36-billion. Grassley says the line had to be drawn.

“We have to wait and see whether there’s more people going to make application for it before we can say that people are being cut,” Grassley says, “but the total appropriation is not cut.” Supporters of the change say while the level of Pell grants has surged in the past two years, college graduation rates have been steady. They say the program needs to be changed to encourage administrators to push students toward graduating, not just attending college.