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As students pack their bags and pick their college courses for the fall semester, a sense of uncertainty hangs in the air. Can students actually afford this?

In hacking away at the budget, Washington is debating drastic cuts to the Pell Grant program, which helps the nation's lowest income students pay for college. Nearly 10 million students rely on Pell to help them finance their post-secondary education, and the program helps to eliminate ever-present inequalities in higher education and the economy. We cannot pretend that the cost of college is not prohibitive for many, especially minority students. Almost half of African-American students and 40% of Hispanic students rely on Pell Grants to help them finance their education. Still, low-income and minority students are the least likely to have a college degree. By the age of 24, children of the wealthy are 10 times more likely to have a college degree than children of the poor.

College tuition and fees have grown at more than four times the rate of inflation, and the lowest income students continue to bear the heaviest burden. The typical low-income college student must finance college costs equivalent to about 72% of his or her family's annual income. As a result, 63% of Pell Grant recipients will still have to take out student loans, compared to just 30% of students not receiving Pell Grants. This is particularly hard on students who want to earn 4 year degrees. Upon graduation, almost 90% of Pell recipients with a 4 year degree will start their career with a debt load averaging $24,800.

Washington rhetoric claims that the Pell Grant's spending trajectory is unsustainable. But Pell Grants are not growing uncontrollably. Instead, Pell Grants are covering a shrinking portion of college costs. While the grants covered three-fourths of the cost of a public, 4-year institution 30 years ago, they cover just one-third today.

What is actually unsustainable is balancing the federal budget on the backs of the most vulnerable, talented, and driven students, who, with the benefit of a college education, can help move our economy forward. Pell has already taken its fair share of budget hits recently, including a cut of $4 billion per year when year-round grants were eliminated in the 2011 budget. If Washington continues to slash program funding by cutting the maximum award or increasing eligibility hurdles, completing college will be even harder for poor and working-class students. That's a bad deal for students - and for all of us.

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