Insider's Look At Life On Welfare: Aka "A Pell Grant Recipient"

My library book has been collecting dust, my evening reading has been replaced with political blogs and news blogs all surrounding the impending debt ceiling and debt talks. Currently we are in the throws of change, absolutely no pun intended, but this post is only inspired by what bubbles up to the surface during these sweeping moments in our history. One of the bubbles that surfaced for me was an interview about the hot topic of Pell Grants. A Pell Grant is government funded money to attend college based upon a host of criteria, namely being financial need determined by a lengthy application known as the FAFSA (Free Application For Federal Student Aid). A Pell Grant isn't something that is handed to you with a key ring from your new University as a welcome, here's some free government money, welcome to college! There are strict requirements (90 page PDF) in factoring your Pell Grant eligibility as ONE component of a Student Aid Package. Student Aid can be a combination of loans, family contributions, grants, and scholarships.

Which leads me to an interview with a Congressman from Montana, that I consider to be completely out of touch with the reality of the average American...

Back in April, Rep. Danny Rehberg (R-Mont) was interviewed on a blog talk radio show*. During his half an hour interview, Rep. Rehberg was presented with a question about Pell Grants. He quickly jumped on the topic and let loose that he believes Pell Grants are modern day welfare. Let's let his words, taken from the interview, actually do the talking because I find them priceless:

"You can go to college on Pell Grants. Maybe I shouldn't be telling anyone this because it's turning out to be the welfare of the 21st Century. Go to school, collect Pell Grants, Food Stamps, Low Income Energy Assistance, Section 8 Housing and not have to graduate. Subsidizing people that don't have to graduate from college." 

Say what?

Hearing those words was like the needle scratching across a record at a party, making the most annoying screeching sound my ears have ever heard, and then of course the immediate following of dead silence. The dead silence creates my wheels turning and I think, no this can't be. An elected Congressman from Montana can't be that out of touch with reality, can he?

Clearly he can.

So now, it's my turn to share a first hand story of being a Modern Day Welfare Recipient. I'd like to set the record straight because really, I'm just appalled at the ignorance. Who knows, maybe the silver spoon that was in Rep. Rehberg's mouth when he was born, affected his ability to think clearly.

My Path To A College Degree:

I believe it's essential to understand that I am a first generation college student in my family. My parents worked very hard (my mother still works because she enjoys it) and the reality of the situation was my family just didn't have an extra $50,000 to pay my way through school. So I did what any bright and determined young woman did, I figured out how to make it all work. Now, I did take a baby step, which was an Associate's Degree from a Community College in New York before I moved to Boulder, to attend the University of Colorado. There was a huge learning curve, I had to navigate the FAFSA solo, with support and counseling from the Financial Aid Departments at both schools. By the time I was at CU Boulder, I felt like I knew my way around how funding works.

At the University of Colorado, I earned a degree in Anthropology while also completing the Teaching Licensure Program. My student aid package was always composed of a wide variety of funding to help me cover all my tuition, fees, and expenses. I received Pell Grants, privately funded Scholarships, Stafford Loans, privately funded Book Grants, Perkins Loans, and money from Work Study programs. I also could be found working no less than two jobs while attending school full time, from my University jobs, nannying, waitressing, and even a grocery store cashier. Are you catching all the ways I leeched as much money as possible out of the government yet? Even though I worked my ass off, I still walked away with Student Loan debt. May I note, a loan which is still being paid off today (with help from my parents), that I never missed ONE payment on. EVER. Would I have been as successful after college if I had accrued another $16,000 in loans, which is what I am quickly figuring as the total amount of Pell Grants I received. I can't answer that, but I do know mortgage payments, preschool tuition, and other living expenses would have been much tighter with a bigger student loan bill and a teacher's salary (but that's a whole other post).

Do I wish I had a trust fund that paid for my education? Of course. Am I grateful I had a wide variety of resources available to me, so I could achieve my dream of becoming a teacher? ABSOLUTELY. Should young students from working class families, struggling middle class families, and poor families have a door closed on their dream because a fiscally conservative Congressman thinks they are just a bunch of bottom feeders, starting with a Pell Grant and moving into Section 8 Housing? NO. Really it's a huge misconception that Pell Grants don't change people's lives. Do I believe every single recipient is successful at a University, definitely not. I also believe if you are eligible and have the drive, you deserve a chance and even a little help along the way. I know, I'm an outrageous Socialist.

From Welfare (Pell Grant Recipient) to Teacher.

I left the University of Colorado, degree in hand, finalized my Teaching License paperwork with the State of Colorado, and went straight to work. No time off, started paying loans back within 3 months of graduation. After a year on the job, my husband and I bought our first home. May I add because it seems to be a crucial part of the story, that I have never missed a mortgage payment, a car payment, defaulted on any loans, or even had a single account in the last 15 years go to a collection agency. I feel blessed that I never had to turn to government assistance to help me get through a really tough spot.

Why is this storytelling important to me?

When issues rise to the surface during debates on our looming and ghastly National Debt, it's important to remember that there are many sides to a story. It's important to not be feeding your mind with one news outlet, one blog, one website. I wish I could say that I've seen important critically sound discussions happening in Washington, D.C. this past month or so, but honestly I haven't. These crucial moments just solidify that no matter what side of the aisle someone sits, they are all driven by their personal agendas. Even though in my heart I want to pull away, I'm just diving in deeper.

I HAVE a voice and it will sound in November.

Related Information on Pell Grants vs. Tuition Rates (2011 info):
Pell Grant per year, Maximum $5,550 to Minimum $550. From what I've read on average, students that receive Pell Grants get about 50% of the maximum. Kind of hard to live the glamorous life on Welfare with not even half of the cost of tuition.

University of Colorado Tuition Rates** $10,000-$14,000 (in state) and $25,400-$28,600 (out of state). This is not including housing, fees, and educational related expenses. Plus those figures are State University tuition rates, google Private Schools and get back to me after you pick up your jaw from the floor.

Pell Grant maximum awards are given to students that lost a parent or guardian in the Iraq or Afghanistan Wars, after 9/11/01. Isn't that a wonderful demographic to turn our back on?

Distribution formulas guarantee that a student is attending college for enough credit hours vs. the funding of grants they received. Pell Grants are available for a student attending college part time.

A University has at their discretion the ability to pull Pell Grant funding from a student that has met all requirements for a degree, but has not opted to formally graduate. Even though Pell Grants can be collected for 18 semesters technically, the average student only draws from Pell Grants for 8 semesters.

Related links and resources:
*Actual interview is available here, answers regarding Pell Grants starts around 7:10 in. 

**University of Colorado tuition rates for Undergraduate course study for In-State and Out-Of-State students.

Maybe unrelated links, but I felt like throwing it in anyway:
One last snippet that truly made my blood boil. Rehberg's character can be called into question, as he's a man in July 2010 that tried to sue the City of Billings and it's Fire Department for loss of "brush and trees" on his ranch. Oddly enough the Fire Department's priorities were focused on protecting against the loss of human life. (PDF of Court Files, got to love the internet!) Luckily he didn't get a dime, our lovely elected fiscal conservative. And we pay HIS salary? Walk the walk, Buddy.



  1. Preaching to the choir. I, too, received a pretty good chunk of financial aid at a state school in WI - mostly loans, but did receive Pell Grants. (The last year, I had earned "too many credits" even though the requirements for my particular degree had not been met, so I needed to take out more in loans - I believe that was Gov Tommy Thompson's idea on Pell Grants after a certain point in education.)

  2. Wow! I'm just shocked (well not really - when it comes to anyone in out government I'm rarely surprised anymore). It was because of grants(and loans) to my sister, who was laid off from her job, that she was able to graduate with two associates degrees and is now on her way to receiving a Bachelor's in Biology. It's just frightening what those who clearly are not in touch with reality think of the real world.

  3. While I was in college, my parents made a combined $12,000 and had to pay for medical care as my mother was battling breast cancer. That $900 per semester I got from my Pell Grant sure did help me live wild and crazy! All that boozing and partying that the government paid for was great!

    Or, you know, paid for a couple of books and kept me from having to go *too* far into student loan debt.

  4. I continue to wonder who votes...for idiots like Rep. Rehberg. Simply trying to fill out a FAFSA form is enough to make one crazy. Let's see - would I like my tax dollars to go to helping someone go to college? Yes, I believe I would.

  5. urgh!! This makes me a bit cranky (a tad understated). I'm a crunchy stay at home, homeschooling, student mom of 4 littles and I had to have pell grants and fed fin aid, work study and loans over a decade and a half ago when I started college! My parents couldn't afford to send me. I'm also a 1st Gen college goer. I did take a break to be a new wife, world traveler (hubby's in the military), and then on to being a mommy. But I've been back in school for a couple of years now (one more sem after this one and I'll have my BS in Psych/Bio!!! yay!!) and I've had to have fed fin aid for these years, too. I didn't default on my first loans and don't foresee defaulting on the ones I've had to take out since either!
    It's appalling that some gov folks stereotype people who receive fed fin aid or we should really just call it "living" aid, based on a few who may squander their funds. :(
    Another SIL and her fam NEED all the aid they can get. They're good people. She stays home with the kiddos and they farm and they live the best they can. They're not out boozing it up every night, leaving the kiddos behind to fend for themselves...or worse!!
    Thanks for sharing this... More people need to make their voices heard on this!!


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