Cities with bumper crops of college graduates have far better harvests when it comes to attracting the jobs of tomorrow.
That's why Memphis and other smaller and impoverished cities that are lagging behind in the percentage of residents with college-degrees have put bold strategies in place to move them up the ladder and increase the percentage of advanced learners.
Cities can't win this competition by themselves, however. The playing fields are getting more unequal every day as proposed cutbacks in Pell grants and other collegiate financial aid threaten to sway which cities gain traction and which remain stuck in old economies.
Pell grants were put in place to ensure the gateway to higher education was open to low-income Americans. Times and attitudes have changed. In 1980, the maximum Pell grant covered 77 percent of the cost at a public university; today, officials estimate it covers 36 percent of a student's obligations. The program itself is in a precarious position, as dwindling family wealth, the recession and higher unemployment rates dramatically increased demand for the grants.
Some are beginning to wonder: Can our society afford to be fair?
During the summer of 2011, the Pell Grant program was facing an $18.3 billion shortfall over the next two academic years, according to the American Association of Community Colleges Stand Up for Pell Grants Action campaign at http://slidesha.re/T7hdjI.
Congress opted to infuse the program with $17 billion during the debt ceiling negotiations, leaving a more manageable $1.3 billion shortfall for academic year 2012-13. In order to maintain the $5,550 maximum grant award and address the $1.3 billion projected shortfall, Pell eligibility requirements were tightened, and some students – including many African Americans – were cut off from their college dreams.
As a result of the changes, new students lacking a GED or high school diploma no longer are eligible for federal student aid. In addition, the maximum number of full-time semesters college students can receive Pell grant awards has dropped from 18 to 12. This hurts the students working their way through school, and dropping out to deal with unexpected life emergencies.
Pell grant recipients are dreamers, doers and strivers. Some of them hold down part-time or full-time jobs. Some come from families whose siblings already earned their college degrees. Some, in fact, are parents who are paying college tuition for children, while taking college classes to improve their own career prospects. Their stories vary widely.
Approximately 46 percent of all African-American undergraduate students receive federal Pell Grant awards. The future is at stake for these students, their communities and the workforces they support. (According to the Department of Education, in 2010-11 The LeMoyne-Owen College had 585 grant recipients and Southwest Tennessee Community College had 10,212.
Students need the community to stand up for them and raise our voices. By advocating for Pell grants, Americans are promoting a level playing field and a competition where poorer cities don't get left behind.
How to get involved
Sign a petition
Community College of Philadelphia: Save Pell – http://www.ccp.edu/site/savepell/
American Association of State Colleges and Universities – http://www.aascu.org/policy/pell-grant/
American Association of Community Colleges:Stand Up for Pell – http://www.aacc.nche.edu/Advocacy/pellaction/Pages/webinar_June21.aspx
(Linda S. Wallace, whose commentaries appear periodically in The New Tri-State Defender, now works in communications for an eastern community college.)