To offset these expenses, the Obama administration proposes to modify two financial aid programs: Elimination of awarding two Pell Grants in one award year and elimination of student interest subsidy for graduate and professional students. While this “cut and invest” strategy to the budget is understandable, these particular cuts warrant additional consideration, as they may sacrifice the ability of many Americans to access and attain the advanced college degrees needed to make our nation stronger.

The FY 2012 budget introduces new programs and provides additional funding to several existing efforts that are connected to the president’s national goal of having the “highest share of college graduates by the year 2020.” Efforts like the First in the World Fund ($123 million), College Completion Incentive Fund ($1.25 billion), College Pathways for Accelerated Learning ($86 million), increased investments for state access and completion programs ($150 million) and increased investments to the federal TRIO ($920 million) and GEAR UP ($323 million) programs will collectively help increase college access and completion rates for many students. Specifically, many of these proposals will help underrepresented students, such as those from low-income, first-generation, and minority families—and offer incentives to states and institutions that educate these students well.

As the FY 2012 budget proposal is introduced, lawmakers are still finalizing spending for FY 2011, which is currently operating under a continuing resolution that expires on March 4. The proposal recently introduced by the leadership in the House of Representatives (HR 1) stands in direct opposition to the proposals introduced in both the Obama administration’s FY 2011 and FY 2012 budgets. It would be a mistake for both Congress and the Obama administration to wring their hand over these issues. We are talking about more than numbers—more than dollars and cents. We are talking about our nation’s ability to be engines of economic growth and prosperity—and the educational futures of the American citizens who can make this happen.

The importance of education and need to improve educational outcomes is clearly understood by Congress. Therefore, as negotiations to finalize the FY 2011 budget, then the FY 2012 budget commence, it is important for everyone to focus on our nation’s educational goals and needs. To facilitate constructive conversations about appropriate budget cuts, the Obama administration and Congress should review all programs in the education portfolio within the broader framework of “our national goal” to determine if they continue to be relevant and/or align with current priorities. Once those answers are determined, more informed decisions can then be made about whether to enhance or eliminate components or initiatives all together.

This approach—a much more objective approach than simply slashing programs and spending—will not only save the federal government money, it would also increase our chances of achieving the national goal. Additionally, if policy-makers are truly intent on “winning the future,” they must recognize that as they “cut,” they must simultaneously “invest” in education. These investments will likely include many existing programs, but will also introduce new ones like those proposed in the FY 2012 budget proposal and other innovative ideas that have not yet been fully considered. In essence, our nation’s policymakers must work toward the collective best interest of American citizens and ensure that our education priorities and programmatic spending are squarely aligned with the need to increase productivity, strengthen educational quality, and incentivize completion.

Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D., is the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, an independent, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.