I am one of thousands of Columbia and Barnard students who receive support from the Federal Pell Grant Program. Along with generous grants from Barnard College and outside scholarships, the Federal Pell Grant Program has made it possible for me to attend this exorbitantly expensive institution.
When I first read about President Trump’s proposal to reduce funding of the Federal Pell Grant Program, along with many other federal programs, a number of questions raced through my mind: Will I have to take out a loan instead? Will it become a part of my expected contribution? How many hours of work will it take to earn that extra amount?
In recent years, Columbia and Barnard students have spoken out about concerns of housing and food insecurity, payroll backlog, and rising tuition. However, amid Columbia’s stress culture and the array of issues that college students face, these extra burdens are often overshadowed in campus discourse. While we can all vocally commiserate about midterms and finals, fewer of us can comfortably speak out about our struggles of socioeconomic class—as only 50 percent of Columbia students and 40 percent of Barnard students receive financial aid grants from the University and college, respectively. Even fewer receive Federal Pell Grants, which support students with what Columbia describes as “the highest need in the country”—16 percent of Columbia students and 17 percent of Barnard students.
Many Columbia students are thus far removed from the questions that I and many others have had to consider in the wake of Trump’s budget proposal. In fact, I’m certain many would find ways to justify such cuts if they were being proposed by a Democrat. Our allegedly progressive University is not free of the broader, societal sense of shame and discomfort surrounding any discussion of class. This isn’t a mistake. When we don’t talk about these issues, it’s harder to organize for change on campus, at work, and beyond.
Over the next 10 years, the Federal Pell Grant Program is projected to be cut by more than $50 billion. The Institute for College Access and Success determined that with tuition rising, “This year’s maximum Pell Grant covers the smallest share of college costs in more than 40 years.” These attacks particularly impact Black and Latinx undergraduates around the country, more than half of whom are Pell Grant recipients. In a time when having a college degree is increasingly crucial for obtaining a job, it’s getting harder and harder to pay for college.
While Barnard and Columbia both state that they meet 100 percent of financial need, the proposed cuts have raised the need to renew that commitment. Fortunately, both administrations signed a letter to Congress urging it to protect the Federal Pell Grant Program and student loan programs. However, this isn’t sufficient on its own. If we want to stop this attack, we need a sustained, powerful student movement to tell our stories and take to the streets. We, as Columbia students, must pressure our elected representatives to take a concrete stance against any further cuts to the Federal Pell Grant Program and stand in solidarity with the millions of students around the country facing similar (or worse) circumstances.
For those questioning the efficacy of activism, we’ve seen it work before, and we’ve seen it work here. Recently, organizers at Barnard and Columbia have won several important victories. In 2015, Columbia became the first university to divest from for-profit prisons after the campaign of Columbia Prison Divest. In March 2016, the Student-Worker Solidarity campaign for a $15 minimum wage for student workers won after two years of work. In the weeks following the election, student protests pushed Columbia to provide sanctuary and support for undocumented students. The work of Columbia Divest for Climate Justice and Divest Barnard resulted in Columbia’s divestment from thermal coal and Barnard’s divestment from companies that deny climate change. Students of color and the LGBTQ+ community are finally getting adequate space in Lerner. There’s still a lot to do, but it’s clear that organizing works.
While the political situation may often feel hopeless, historian Howard Zinn once said, “What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but ‘who is sitting in’—and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.” If students around the country come together, we can play a pivotal role in the fight against Trump’s budget cuts and other attacks on workers, people of color, women, immigrants, and all oppressed and exploited groups. We need to stand together and advocate for ourselves and each other in the face of this attack and many others taking place under this administration. I believe in our potential to fight back and win.
Meghan Brophy is a Barnard first-year studying sociology. She is involved in Student-Worker Solidarity.
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