Faces of the Budget: Student Aid and Student Debt


Photo by Joey Gannon

By Molly Grover

When Richard, a retired Air Force officer, went to college in 1960, student debt was not something people worried about. Tuition rates were rock-bottom and Richard could brag about being able to “pay my tuition and my room… feed myself, and keep a car going” all while working a minimum-wage job that paid 90 cents an hour.

Fifty years later, everything has changed. Lauren from Northampton, Mass., is a student at New York University where tuition is $44,845. Like so many of today’s college students, she is uncomfortable with her accumulating debt and anxious about landing a job after graduation. At National Priorities Project, we’re collecting stories like those of Richard and Lauren as part of Faces of the Budget, a project to record the personal impact of the federal budget – in this case, of federal student aid programs.

In spite of their contrasting experiences, Richard and Lauren are very like-minded on the subject of student debt, and equally upset about the diminishing government contributions to student aid.

“When I first heard about student loans, I thought they were great,” says Richard. “In retrospect, I think it’s terrible.” He argues that student loans have made it possible for states to minimize their funding to their public universities, thus driving up tuition and putting the financial burden squarely on students.

Lauren feels that burden, and relies on federal support to ease the rising cost of higher education.

“College wouldn’t be possible [for me] if I wasn’t getting federal aid,” she says.

She receives the maximum Federal Work-Study grant each year, and loves how that program combines aid with opportunities for students to give back to their school community.

Despite the role of work-study and Pell grants in making college affordable for students like Lauren, funding for these programs is on the chopping block. The budget cuts of sequestration have already reduced work-study funding by $49 million, affecting around 33,000 college students, and the House passed funding levels for 2014 that could lead to more than $4 billion in cuts from Pell grants.

Molly Grover is a summer intern at National Priorities Project and an Ada Comstock scholar at Smith College.