The current budget battles on Capitol Hill sadly are taking a toll on federal education programs ranging from early childhood to postsecondary education. As Congress tries to determine the long-term budget plan for FY 2011, a potential $5.7 billion cut to Pell Grant funding is in play and this has dire consequences for students in need.

For those who are not familiar with the Pell Grant program, it serves as the nation’s flagship financial aid program providing aid to 9.4 million students in need. With the recession of 2007, hard economic times forced students to return to school and raised the need for Pell Grant funding (from 6.2 million in 2008 to above 9 million this year). President Obama supports keeping the maximum Pell grant at $5,550 and with that in mind; students and families are already planning ways to cover postsecondary tuition for the next academic year. Any abrupt cuts to Pell would send several students into a tailspin as they frantically search for ways to finance unexpected tuition costs.

As of February, admission offices at colleges and universities nationwide began mailing acceptance letters and after that, financial aid award letters will be sent to students and families so they may begin budgeting for tuition for the upcoming school year. However, it becomes impossible to do any sound planning or even consider college as an option if Pell Grants are cut in this week’s budget proposal. The House-passed budget plan (H.R. 1) from earlier this year would have cut Pell Grants by $5.7 billion (resulting in an $845 cut to the maximum award for students with the greatest need). The new budget proposal by Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) slashes Pell even further, cutting the grant award per student by over half, resulting in over a million students being excluded from the program. When it comes down to it, it’s scary to think how some members in Congress are unable, or perhaps even refuse to view Pell as an investment in America.

Is this what it comes down to? , Are some members of Congress willing to curb government spending on the backs of students in need rather than talking about oil company subsidies or the tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans? Are we willing to make postsecondary education unaffordable for over 9 million students? Are we willing to disrupt their academic careers, making it increasingly difficult for them to earn a college degree and help America regain its footing as one of the most competitive nations in the world? Are we willing to kill the enthusiasm of high school seniors who recently received college acceptance letters by following it up with a federal notice advising them of this new financial setback?

At a press conference yesterday on Capitol Hill , Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), the Ranking Member on the Labor, Education, Health, and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, and Congressman George Miller (D-CA), Ranking Member on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, voiced their opposition to the proposed Republican cuts to education funding, and specifically to Pell Grants. First Focus applauds their efforts in defending the cornerstone program of student financial aid. While the debates continue on cuts and ideology, what remains at stake is the right for 9.4 million students to obtain an education and the lack thereof will have crucial consequences for both these individual students as well as the country.