Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Aid to college students stimulates economy

By DeWayne Wickham

As best I understand it, Republican critics of the economic recovery bill winding its way through Congress this week have divided its contents into things that will give the nation's troubled economy a quick shot in the arm and those that won't.

The bulk of the money in both the House and Senate versions of this legislation, the GOP naysayers charge, amounts to little more than the ravenous spending of the Democrats who now control both halls of Congress. Republicans include in this category the money — $16 billion in the House version of the bill; $14 billion in the Senate's — to increase financial aid that college students can receive in a Pell Grant.

That's bunkum.

For many colleges and universities, the financial assistance students get from the federal government to pay their tuition makes up a big chunk of the money the schools need to operate. Keeping the schools open and at full capacity will give the nation's economy both an immediate and long-term stimulus.

In many communities, higher education institutions are a major source of employment and business activity. But 62% of private colleges and 48% of public colleges surveyed last month by the Chronicle of Higher Education said they expected to lose students this semester in the wake of the recession. An increase in the Pell Grant could help stave off more dropouts in the fall semester — and possibly get some of the students who left to return.

That would be a quick economic stimulus that could have an immediate ripple effect, as schools might then hire more adjunct faculty while increasing the purchases of supplies and services from area businesses.

The long-term effect would be even more significant for this country's economic health. The percentage of Americans ages 25-29 with college degrees is less than that for those ages 60-64, according to the Census Bureau. This nation won't experience long-term economic success if it doesn't reverse those numbers.

"This is not a game. This is not a contest of who's in power and who's up and who's down, “President Obama said last week in a speech to House Democrats. "These are your constituents. These are families you know and you care about. I believe that it is important for us to set aside some of the gamesmanship in this town and get something done."

He's right.

Lawmakers have to put the country's needs ahead of their desire to score political points. They must put the nation's immediate economic challenges ahead of a push for political victory.
The objections the Republicans are raising to the stimulus bill sound like a trial run of the kind of arguments they hope to use in the 2010 midterm elections.

Obama was correct, though he sounded a bit cocky, when he proclaimed to House Democrats that a spending bill is a stimulus bill. Sure, Democrats in both houses of Congress loaded their versions of the bill with funds for many of their spending priorities. But in politics, as in war, "to the victor go the spoils."

It is especially disingenuous for Republicans to argue that increased funding of the Pell Grant program would not have an immediate economic impact. Any parent with a child in college — or about to enter college — knows better.

Understandably, the Republicans are eager to get back on the offensive after the drubbing they took in the 2008 election. Nevertheless, their opposition to the economic recovery bill is a losing battle.

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