Must Needy Students Be Locked Out? : California's legal immigrants especially will suffer if Pell grants are severely restricted

In a move that could pain California's institutions of higher learning and students, Congress is considering harsh new restrictions on need-based education aid to legal immigrants.

The proposed changes could not only eliminate a crucial steppingstone for tens of thousands of young newcomers but put further financial strain on public and private colleges and universities at a time when many already are being forced to cut their budgets or increase fees--or do both.

Every year, the federal government provides billions of dollars in educational aid to individuals, including loans, scholarships and grants. One of the best-known and most popular sources of funds is the Pell grant. Created in 1972, it has helped a huge number of the needy attend college. In California, about 370,000 students now receive Pell grants, roughly one-third of them legal immigrants.

Nationally, legal immigrants receive less than 10% of Pell dollars and an even smaller percentage of all student aid. California, home to more legal immigrants than any other state, gets the largest share of this overall funding.

The Pell program, named for longtime Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), has now become a target of congressional cost cutters. Provisions tucked into federal welfare reform legislation would lessen a legal immigrant's ability to qualify for Pell grants or other forms of federal educational aid. Under a House proposal, for example, the income of the immigrant's sponsor would be counted in determining eligibility for financial aid. Language in a Senate version of the legislation would require legal immigrants to pay taxes for up to 10 years before qualifying for federal financial help.

That may not mean much to a state like Iowa, where only 1.8% of Pell aid goes to immigrants, but in states like California (34%), New York (29%), New Jersey (20%) and Massachusetts (15%), the impact on colleges would be a hard right to the chin. According to state education officials, the University of California and California State University systems each could lose $21 million in Pell money and $31 million more in subsidized loans. All told, public and private schools in California stand to lose as much as $196 million if the restrictions are approved.

Education is not welfare. It is an important investment that, over the long haul, pays big dividends to society. Putting roadblocks in front of aspiring citizens who are trying to better themselves through study might appear to save a few dollars on the margins, but the federal government cannot expect these people to become productive if it strips them of opportunities for education.

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