Letter by the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., to the Chicago Tribune's Voice of the People
December 3, 2005
Two recent stories about the lives of the dispossessed have dominated the global news media in the past two months—the plight of low-income evacuees from New Orleans and the rioting by unassimilated and impoverished immigrant youths in France. Though the events are startling in differing ways, they both reflect that France and America have been caught off-guard by the frustration of the poor in our midst.
Yet a quietly evolving issue with major ramifications for all members of those very groups in the United States has barely registered a blip on the media screen: that is the looming cuts in financial aid to American college students. These proposed cuts—currently estimated at roughly $14 billion—will make obtaining a college degree more difficult for most college students, but will deliver an especially harsh blow to students from low-income families, especially students from minority and recent immigrant families.
And so, I am grateful to the Tribune and to columnist Dawn Turner Trice for being one of the few members of the media to cover this in "Students' loans, prospects on chopping block" (Metro, Nov. 9). These devastating cuts, as proposed by the Bush administration and the leadership in the Senate and the House, are designed in part to help the U.S. government fund the cost of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. Yet, ironically, the cuts may well have the unintended consequence of condemning to a life of permanent underclass status those very groups who need the greatest assistance in recovering from Katrina.
This year, 75 percent of students from the top family income quartile will complete a college degree by age 24. Only 8 percent of the bottom income quartile will do the same. The policy decisions that led to this are not so much a matter of conservative vs. liberal policy, as of short-term gain over long-term investment. Both sides of the aisle readily admit that public investment in education has a proven, long-term payoff for the nation's economy. In financially challenging moments, though, both sides of the aisle are tempted to cut the very item that will build this country in the long run.
For years now, the federal government has been shifting federal financial aid from away from grants and toward loans, to the point that, today, 76 percent of all federal financial aid dollars support loans and only 24 percent provide grant assistance. What is stunning is that the government now intends to cut loans as well.
If anything has proven over the decades to be a ticket out of poverty, it is a college education.
But now as the government is attempting to help rebuild lives in the Gulf region, it is proposing pulling up one of the most useful ladders for climbing into the middle class to help pay for its efforts.
At DePaul, whose 23,000 students make it the largest Catholic university in the United States, 38 percent of our freshmen are the first members of their families to attend college. Most of these students come from low-income families and are minorities, immigrants or children of immigrants. Without sufficient financial aid, these numbers will decline—perhaps dramatically. The same will be true at universities across the nation.
Pulling away student loans, after pulling away grants, is a clear retreat from our nation's strategy to create a strong economy through a well-educated populace. Student loans are used and depended upon by all levels of society. Cutting student loans may force many families to send their children to lower-quality institutions in the name of basic affordability. For those 8 percent in the bottom quartile—our immigrants and our poor—far fewer will find a college degree attainable at all. In the aftermath of the New Orleans disaster, America is now bearing tens of billions of dollars in reconstruction costs that could have been averted had a small fraction of that money had been invested up front in shoring up the levees. Let's hope that our nation does not have to learn an even more costly lesson in the future by failing to provide a proper education to those who are struggling to gain a toehold on the American dream by shortchanging them today.