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Pell changes could spell more debt for students

March 24, 2011

When Kaitlin Zander was growing up on her family farm near Cross Plains, Wis., she said her family struggled financially. Zander said there was a serious shortage of large animal veterinarians at the farm during her childhood and adolescence, and she always dreamed of doing something about it.

“I had always seen my family struggle but my parents always tried to give us the best,” Zander said. “My dad works three jobs and my mom has two and we have the farm.”

Zander said her solution to what she observed while growing up was to go to college and study large animal science. There was just one problem. She was going to need a lot of help funding her college education and her parents are not in a financial position to do that.

With several grants and loans under her belt, she is currently enrolled at UW-River Falls, where she is in her second year pursuing her childhood solution to the shortage of large animal veterinarians.

Among the financial aid she qualified for, Zander is a recipient of a federally funded Pell Grant.

The grant has recently been up for debate by the United States Senate and the Obama administration because a portion of the grant’s funds comes from discretionary spending, said UWRF Director of Financial Aid Barbara Stinson.

Last year the Obama Administration proposed to expand Pell Grants incrementally and increase the eligibility requirements. However, with the falling economy, the number of eligible recipients has grown substantially, Stinson said.

In response, lawmakers have proposed cuts to discretionary spending in a budget based on negotiations between the president and Congress.

Unable to come to a decision, Congress has postponed voting on discretionary spending cuts until April 8, said Director of the Academic Success Center Jill Moe.

Students with an Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, of zero were once eligible for a maximum of $5,550 in Pell Grants. The Senate voted to cut this amount by $845. This amount leaves a much greater impact for a $1,000 Pell Grant recipient, Moe said.

An EFC amount of zero means that a student does not and cannot receive any financial assistance from their family, Stinson said.

According to a UW-System report, in the 2008-2009 academic year, 22 percent of UWRF students were Pell Grant recipients. In sum, the University received $4.2 million dollars in Pell Grants, with an average of $3,121 per student.

Grant eligibility is determined through a form filled out by students known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, said Financial Aid Counselor Anthony Rubis.

In the 2008-2009 academic year, 73 percent of students at UWRF received some form of financial aid, according to a UW-System report.

“There is definitely a correlation between financial need and admission standards,” said Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Services Alan Tuchtenhagen. “With that, we have a lot of first-generation students.”

Over half of UWRF students are first-generation students, meaning their parents do not have college degrees, Moe said.

As a first-generation Pell Grant recipient, Zander said she picked UWRF because it is affordable.

UWRF continues to be one of the cheapest options in the area for students interested in attending a four-year institution, but changes to Pell Grant funding could change that, Tuchtenhagen said.

“I have heard no serious proposals to do away with Pell, but students may have to incur more debt,” Tuchtenhagen said.

In the current financial climate, student tuition will continue to increase, said Stinson.

According to a UW-System report, in the 2009-2010 academic year UWRF tuition increased $289 from the previous academic year.

With increasing tuition and decreasing amounts of available financial aid, college student success will inevitably be affected, Moe said.

The most important thing students can do is to vote for government officials that value higher education, Stinson said.

“Now we are dealing with the consequences of who was voted into office,” she said.

Zander said she might have to go back home and find away to immediately work off her debt if she is not awarded enough from the Pell Grant next year. Alternatively, she would have to take out additional loans so she can continue pursuing her career ambitions in large animal science.