Washington (CNN) -- It takes a lot of guts to go up to Capitol Hill in the current budget-cutting climate and ask for more money, yet that's what Education Secretary Arne Duncan did at his appearance at the Senate Budget Committee on Tuesday.
President Obama's 2012 budget request for education, including Pell Grant increases, calls for an 11% increase over the 2011 continuing resolution level.
"I'm flabbergasted by the education budget," Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions said. "We need a dramatic course correction. We need to get the message. We need to get in sync with the reality with what is happening in the world today."
An increase in demand for Pell Grants, a program for low-income students that covers up to $5,500 per year for college costs, is partly to blame.
According to Duncan, fewer than 4 million Pell Grants were given in 2000. The Education Department projects that it will give 9.6 million grants next year.
"In my view, this is a good problem. It's actually a great problem for our country to have. We desperately need more young people going to college. And with the economy, they desperately need our help," Duncan told the committee.
To help cover a portion of the Pell Grant cost, the president's budget calls for the elimination of an extra Pell Grant that students can get each year to cover summer school. The budget request also ends an interest subsidy for graduate student loans.
Not including Pell Grants, the president's education budget request calls for an increase of $2 billion, or a 4% increase over the 2011 continuing resolution level.
Sessions called the requested increase in spending "an affront to common sense."
Duncan defended the administration's stance, saying, "At the end of the day, I believe we have to invest in education. When as a country we've gone from first to ninth in college graduates with a 25% dropout rate, our students in our country deserve better than what they are getting today."