If you pay attention to the political news, you are probably tired of hearing the phrase "fiscal cliff." So how about "fiscal abyss" instead? Is it gloomy enough for you? Maybe the imagery of dropping into a bottomless pit better captures the "free falling" consequences of what's at stake. The combination of expiring tax cuts with across-the-board automatic spending cuts, known as "sequestration," will likely plummet the country into another recession next year.
As Congress debates what to cut and what to protect, I'm urging my congressional delegation to support federally funded education programs such as TRiO. These programs will be significantly cut if Congress does not prevent sequestration from happening.
Shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, our country committed to providing educational opportunity for all Americans regardless of race, ethnic background or economic circumstances. In support of this commitment, Congress established a series of programs to help first-generation and low-income Americans and those with disabilities enter college, graduate and compete for better-paying jobs. (It is well known that wages have been stagnant or declining for workers without a college education over the last 20 years.) These federal programs are funded under Title IV of the Higher Educational Act of 1965, distributed to institutions through competitive grants, and are referred to as TRiO programs. The name "TRiO" was coined because in the early years there were only three programs: Upward Bound, Talent Search and Student Support Services. Since that time, additional reauthorizations have resulted in additional programs such as Educational Opportunity Centers, the McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, Upward Bound Math/Science and Veterans Upward Bound.
If sequestration "trigger cuts" are not averted, discretionary programs aimed at creating opportunity and equity in America - including those for disadvantaged students, like TRiO - would be cut by almost $1.3 billion, according to an analysis by the White House Office of Management and Budget. Currently, both Republicans and Democrats are proposing to cut discretionary spending - including funding for education programs like TRiO. The proposal put forth by the Republicans includes cuts for the 2013-14 program year (about $300 billion) while Democrats propose a similar reduction for the subsequent year through sequestration. If applied across the board, both proposals would result in up to 8 percent funding cuts for TRIO.
After two years of consecutive cuts and previous years of level funded budgets, TRiO is losing the capacity to make a significant difference in the economic lives of low-income students whom they serve; currently, TRiO programs are only funded to serve about 5 percent of eligible students. Annual cuts of 8 percent cannot be sustained in already underfunded project budgets. If you believe America needs to maintain its commitment to underprivileged members, now is the time to voice your concerns and tell your congressional leaders to protect higher education programs that low-income students depend on: TRiO, GEAR UP, SEOG, Federal Work-Study and low-interest direct student loans.
Perhaps it is also time for those who have gained the most during this era of big tax cuts to pay their fair share so we all can believe again in the promise of America.
Tom Huber lives in Rainbow Lake and directs a TRiO Student Support Services program at Paul Smith's College.