SAT Scores are down nationwide, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday.  According to recent data from The College Board, the average SAT score for the class of 2012 was 1055, out of a possible 2400.  College readiness is indicated by a minimum score of 1550.  Thus, 57% of test takers scored below the benchmark indicating college readiness.  In the various sections, math scores remained the same at 514, reading scores fell to 497 and writing scores dropped to 489, each of the latter two sections down one point since 2011.

While there has been a slight decrease in average scores on each test section, there has been a marked increase in the number of diverse students taking the test.  The College Board notes that this most recent class represented the most diverse group of test takers ever.  In 2012, 45% of students who took the SAT were minorities, up from 38% in 2008.  The number of students whose second language is English also increased, from 24% in 2008 to 28% in 2012.  A record 36% of last year’s test takers reported that their parents’ highest level of education was a high school diploma or less.

The number of diverse test takers is far more significant than the decrease in scores.  Despite the fact that many schools across the United States are failing and students are chronically behind, the rise in minority SAT test takers indicates that more students are working toward earning a college education and seeing it not only as a goal, but also as a real possibility.  It indicates that teachers are pushing their students to stretch beyond what they previously considered themselves to be capable of doing.  More students are taking the SAT because more minority and low-income students are realizing their potential and working to reach it.

The question then is, if these low-income and minority students set their sights on college, will they be able to attend?  The College Board’s data underscores a central feature of the federal budget debate, so important to the current presidential race: federal college funding.  Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s budget recommends major cuts to Pell Grants.  The Ryan Budget recommends decreasing the maximum award level to $5,500, below the current maximum award of $5,645.  The current maximum federal award covers, on average, about one-third of the cost of college attendance

Congressman Ryan also recommends decreasing the level at which students qualify for zero “Expected Family Contribution” and eliminating Pell Grant eligibility for less than half time students.  Both reductions would specifically affect low-income students, including those who, without other means to pay for the remaining 2/3 of their college education, work full time to fund their education.  Ryan’s budget recommends that “[f]unding should be reserved for students with a larger commitment to their education.”  The proposed reduction in Pell Grant funding indicates a fundamental misunderstanding about low-income students.  Congressman Ryan’s budget notes that Pell Grants are the “foundation of the Nation’s commitment to helping low-income students gain access to higher education,” yet his budget would shut out exactly those students who need them most.

Inside Higher Ed reported earlier this month that Pell spending decreased last year by more than $2 billion, falling from $35.6 billion to $33.4 billion.  This decrease is in large part due to the elimination of the summer Pell Grants, which allowed students to receive two awards each academic year.  In his article, Paul Fain notes that the for-profit enrollment of students receiving Pell Grants dropped significantly last year, by 108,000 students, which may account for some of the decrease.  Additionally, public and community colleges saw a slight influx in revenue from Pell Grants.  Students who attend public colleges or community colleges on average receive lower Pell awards, in part because those students are more likely to enroll in college on a part-time basis and/or work while attending college.

In an interview with Univision last week, Mitt Romney broke with the Ryan budget and suggested that Pell Grants not be capped, but rather increase with the rate of inflation.  Romney noted that inflation of tuition has increased much more quickly than the general rate of inflation saying, we “have to keep these costs down and . . . be able to keep up with the costs.”  The national rate of inflation in 2011 was 3%.  The Republican platform, however, advocates the elimination of Pell Grants.  It reads, “The federal government should not be in the business of originating student loans; however, it should serve as an insurance guarantor for the private sector as they offer loans to students. Private sector participation in student financing should be welcomed.”  The extent to which the upcoming political discourse will concentrate on Pell Grants remains to be seen.  Perhaps news of the simultaneous decrease in SAT scores and the increase in test-taker diversity will force leaders and policy makers to focus their attention on those students for whom Pell Grants were originally designed and re-examine the importance of higher education funding.