When I asked higher education experts why a Congress full of budget hawks had spared Pell Grants from massive cuts next year by giving them $17 billion in the debt-ceiling deal, they told me it was because Pell Grants are unlike other social benefits in that they aren't intended solely for the poor. They are, in principle at least, intended to assist the middle class in sending their children to college. It's a goal that everyone agrees with, and more importantly, a benefit that impacts Republicans and Democrats alike. The same can't be said of welfare, Medicaid, or food stamps.
Is it fair to call Pell Grants a middle-class benefit? Barry Toiv of the Association of American Universities adroitly points out that the most families who receive Pell Grants earn $30,000 or less. The median family income of recipients in the most recent data was $16,300. That is below the poverty line for a family of four. Yet, it seems to be important to lawmakers that Pell Grants aren't just for the poor. They're for anyone who qualifies. "The program works exactly how it's supposed to work," said Jon Fansmith of the American Council on Education. "It accounts for things like the size of your family, how many other people in your family are in school.... It's not particularly generous. It's not like there are people making $120,000" getting grants.
What are the advantages of talking about Pell Grants as a middle-class benefit? What are the disadvantages? Is there another explanation for the fact that Pell Grants have skated through the budget-cutting fray relatively unscathed? Are there other student-aid programs that are better classified as "middle class"? What are other good arguments for retaining (or even growing) student aid?