Biden wants to double Pell’s maximum grant. What difference would that make?
A Pell Grant of $13,000 would almost entirely cover the current average annual cost of attending community college students. Students at public four-year institutions would have more than half of their tuition, fees, room and board paid.
This is what President Biden called for last month in its latest budget proposal: A doubling of the maximum Pell grant by 2029. While unlikely to pass, affordability advocates say they hope the president’s ambitious proposal amplifies an important conversation about the federal funding program. help for students.
The Pell Grant has helped low-income students pay for college for 50 years. But Biden and higher education advocates say he’s not doing that job as well as he could be.
Biden cited a striking statistic: In 1980, the maximum Pell Prize covered nearly 80 percent tuition, fees, room and board at a public four-year university. In 2020, it covered less than 30% of these costs.
Congress recently tried keep the Pell Grant in line with inflation by making small increases of $100 and $200 to the maximum award. In the latest omnibus spending package, passed in March, lawmakers approved a $400 increase — the biggest single increase for the Pell in more than a decade. The maximum Pell grant has increased from $6,495 to $6,895 and the minimum grant has increased from $650 to $690.
The Pell Grant program has long enjoyed bipartisan support. Republicans love it because it’s a voucher program that puts money in the hands of students, who decide how and where to spend it; Democrats love it because it’s so focused on low-income students, said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of government relations and public affairs at the American Council on Education.
Currently, a major hurdle is cost: while a number of Democratic members of Congress are pushing for an increase in the Pell Grant, Republicans have said they are wary of any new government spending amid rising inflation. During a hearing last yearRepublicans on the House Education and Labor Committee also said they did not believe doubling the Pell Grant would make college more affordable, and suggested universities would simply raise tuition in response.
Strengthening the Pell program is one of the most effective ways to tackle inequality in higher education, say affordability advocates, because it targets students who need the most help.
According to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, Pell’s raise is closely tied to racial and social justice. During the 2015-16 academic year, 58% of black students and 47% of Hispanic students received a federal Pell grant, compared to 32% of white students. Just over 80% of Pell recipients in 2017-18 had an annual family income below $40,000.
“When we talk about how to make sure we distribute financial aid fairly, Pell is really the best way to do it,” said Rachel Gentry, director of government relations for the association. “It’s also not like we have to start a new program. The Pell Grant program already exists and it already targets assistance to the most modest students.
As it stands, however, the maximum Pell Grant does not even cover the average cost of in-state tuition at a four-year public university, let alone other costs. Although low-income students often receive state and institution support in addition to their Pell grant, this is not always enough.
According to the American Council on Education, Pell Grant recipients are more than twice as likely as other students to have student loans.
“If low-income students are fully qualified and eligible to attend four-year institutions, and they wish to attend their four-year institution, they should be able to do so without having to borrow not just the full loan amount, but also having to work long hours or ask their low-income parents for loans,” said Rachel Fishman, associate director of research with the New America Education Policy Program.
“What I would like to see,” Fishman continued, “is a program funded at least to a level where access and opportunity for a four-year degree is no longer reserved for middle-class Americans. and high income.”
In 2018-19, less than a quarter of public four-year institutions were affordable for students who received a Pell grant, according to the National College Attainment Network. At these facilities, the average amount of unmet financial need for Pell recipients was $2,524.
Similarly, only 41% of public two-year institutions were affordable for Pell recipients, with an average unmet financial need of $855. (The organization calculates affordability by determining whether a college’s total costs, plus $300 in emergency expenses, would be covered by all available sources of student aid, federal co-op, and family contribution expected.)
“The program has been underfunded for so long,” Fishman said, “and tuition and associated expenses have increased so rapidly that there is still a significant gap for many students where this Pell grant is. finished.”
Strengthen the program
Some policy experts are skeptical of arguments that the Pell Grant program has not kept up with the rising cost of a college education. Jason D. Delisle, senior policy researcher at the Urban Institute’s Center on Education Data and Policy, wrote in an analysis last year which award aid from all sources, including Pell, nearly doubled between the 1980s and 2010s, offsetting most of the increase in tuition and fees during this period. The real problem, Delisle wrote, was rising student housing costs.
While lawmakers’ appetite for spending federal money has waned since a spending boom at the start of the pandemic, Fishman doesn’t think that should stand in the way of bolstering the Pell Grant. A crisis like the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in college affordability, she said.
“For me, this moment is even more critical,” said Kim Cook, chief executive of the National College Attainment Network, known as NCAN. “It’s been a policy goal for NCAN before the pandemic, but if anything about the pandemic has been a lesson it’s really about the exacerbated inequalities of affordability and the need to really look at which programs and proposals best target these needs. and support these students in the best way.
Some progressive lawmakers are adamant that if the doubling of the Pell doesn’t happen in the next budget cycle, they will continue to push for it. But its future may hinge on cost-conscious Republicans gaining control of one or both houses of Congress in the upcoming midterm elections. In the past, said Hartle of the American Council on Education, Republicans have supported Pell increases under much smaller federal budgets.
Some Republicans are also skeptical that doubling the Pell would be better for students. Rep. Greg Murphy, a North Carolina Republican on the education committee, believes colleges, not students, are the primary beneficiaries of the grant program. “A comprehensive reform of the HEA’s accountability network will do more to help long-term students than pour money into a broken system,” he told a hearing, referring to the law. on higher education. His argument suggests that increased student aid leads to higher tuition costs, but research on the idea is inconclusive.
Despite the long odds of doubling Pell’s maximum in the near future, Biden’s inclusion of that goal as a policy priority has energized the higher education community, Hartle said. ACE and other higher education advocates are cautiously optimistic.
“You have to start somewhere,” Hartle said, “and it’s a much-needed first step toward achieving those goals.”