Financial Aid & Sequestration

Katie Miller

At some point in nearly every student’s college search, one question inevitably arises: how will I afford to attend this institution? While the attainment of a postsecondary degree has arguably become more of an expectation than an advantage in the job market, college tuition is steepening across the nation. Financial aid has thus become an invaluable resource for students who might not otherwise be able to afford higher education—but the sequester, a series of automatic federal spending cuts that went into effect on March 1, may significantly affect some students’ federal financial aid packages for the upcoming year [1].

Roughly two-thirds of American undergraduate students receive some form of financial aid, in the form of federal grants, loans, work-study, tax credits, deductions, and institutional grants and scholarships [2]. However, while federal financial aid is a central fixture of the modern academic sphere, from a historical perspective educational assistance from the government is a relatively new development. Not until the Higher Education Act of 1965, passed under President Lyndon B. Johnson, did the government lay out a plan for financial assistance for students. The act itself consists of nine Titles; Student Assistance is Title IV and breaks down the definition of financial aid into eight parts, including descriptions of grants to students, need analysis, and federal work-study  [3].

The Higher Education Act marked the American government’s first-ever program to provide need-based financial aid for students, and perhaps unsurprisingly, college enrollment rates have skyrocketed since 1965. While a number of other societal and cultural factors have impacted college attendance, including transformed gender and race norms, the Higher Education Act inarguably played a substantial role in the almost 300 percent increase in higher education enrollment from 1965 to 2005 [4]. While overall two-thirds of American students receive either federal or institutional financial aid, approximately 47 percent of students received federal financial aid in 2007-2008 [5]—in other words, almost half of American students depend to some extent on assistance from the federal government to pay for higher education.

However, the $85 billion in federal spending cuts that recently went into effect could impact many students’ aid packages from the federal government in the 2013-2014 academic year. While many of the reductions will not significantly affect students, the Federal Work-Study Program—which employs about 20 percent of Vanderbilt Students [6]—is facing a $49 million cut [7]. The substantial cuts could result in fewer work-study hours for many students across the nation and financial aid packages reduced by up to $583 for the upcoming school year [8]. The sequestration will not, however, impact Federal Pell Grants, which are awarded to low-income undergraduate students based on demonstrated need and were capped at $5,500 for the 2012-2013 academic year.

Ultimately, the sequestration cuts are emblematic of the high relevance of politics to the lives of even busy college students. While some may be tempted to write off “sequestration” as a mere political buzzword, the budget cuts it entails may have far-reaching effects on American college students’ ability to pay for the higher education that is so strongly valued.









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