In developing a national education strategy - and in constructing an economic vision for America's future - we must strive to ensure that every American who wants to go to college can afford to go to college.
The tax system is one way of providing relief to families attempting to put a child through college, but tax credits and deductions alone will not make higher education more affordable for every working family.
As the Boston-based Education Resources Institute has reported, low-income students need grant aid to help cover tuition costs. Otherwise, an entire community could effectively be shut out of the American dream. As I have met with the presidents of universities, community colleges, and vocational and technical schools, I hear everyone saying the same thing: We need more grant aid - we need increased funding for Pell Grants.
Educators understand that students are struggling to meet rising college costs. The average tuition at a four-year public college in Massachusetts is more than $4,000; the average private school costs nearly four times that amount. In 1980-81, the average Pell Grant award paid for 26 percent of the total annual cost of attending a four-year public institution. Today, the average award covers only 16 percent of that cost.
What happened? The problem with Pell Grant funding comes not from institutions of higher learning, but rather from a Congress that neglected to keep financial aid awards consistent with the rising cost of living. While congressional appropriations for Pell Grants have increased modestly over the last 17 years, the real dollar amount for the grants, when adjusted for inflation, has actually decreased by 13 percent during this period.
The Pell Grant program is the heart of federal grant aid for families in need. It targets those students most likely not to attend college because of a lack of funds. These are the children of modest-income, working families, and those of middle-income families who are struggling to send several children to college at the same time.
President Clinton has proposed raising the maximum Pell Grant award from its present level of $2,700 to $3,000. Frankly, this modest increase simply won't cut it. If education is truly at the top of our national agenda, our federal investment must reflect this fact. That is why Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) of Minnesota and I introduced legislation to increase the maximum Pell Grant to $5,000, bringing the award to the level at which it was created, adjusted for inflation.
This legislation is supported by respected groups like the American Jewish Committee, the National Council of La Raza, the NAACP, and the US Student Association.
Increased funding for Pell Grants is not prohibitively expensive. Last year, the Pell Grant program totaled $6.4 billion and benefited about 3.4 million students. My bill requires about $7 billion more per year - less than three-tenths of 1 percent of the federal budget. And Pell Grants pay a huge dividend in a more productive, highly educated work force.
I am committed to balancing the budget and believe every dollar the government spends must be viewed in this framework. But when it comes to investing in our children's education, I am convinced that our nation's future hangs in the balance. On this, we simply cannot pinch pennies. Every American child deserves the opportunity to become a productive member of our society.
As we move into the 21st century, we must guarantee that no student who aspires to a college education is left behind simply because he or she cannot afford it. Adjusting Pell Grant funding for inflation is one way to avert such a tragedy.
* James P. McGovern (D) represents the Third District in Massachusetts.