Doubling the Pell Grant invests in America's future 
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Last August, as higher education entered its first academic year amidst a pandemic, low- and moderate-income families were twice as likely to “cancel all plans” for postsecondary education, according to a survey from the U.S. Census Bureau. As the country prepares to enter a second year, still grappling with COVID-19, America cannot afford to have huge populations, particularly those with the most to gain from a college degree, walk away entirely from postsecondary education. To ensure students do not feel like higher education is out of their reach, it’s time for Congress to invest in America by doubling the maximum Pell award.

The surest remedy for income inequality is postsecondary education. Numerous studies have demonstrated the impact that a college degree has on earnings and vaulting graduates into the middle class. As the country learns how to build itself back, it’s now up to Congress to act. The budget resolution passed by Congress last month provides a way to double the maximum Pell award, paving the way to higher education. That would be a win for every low-income family in America and every member of Congress who serves them. 

If our country is serious about fixing income inequality, doubling the grant is a very easy, low-risk first step. 

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For nearly 50 years, the Pell Grant has been the nation’s foundational investment in higher education. In the program’s early days, a Pell grant covered more than three-quarters of a recipient’s college costs. But as states steadily cut college and university budgets, and household incomes remained flat, the grant now covers less than a third of those costs.

Nevertheless, the grants go overwhelmingly to low-income students: nearly 70 percent of Pell dollars support students with a family income below $30,000; nearly 90 percent to students with a family income below $50,000. Doubling the award will reduce student debt and increase degree completion, as data shows students who receive their Pell grants with additional federal grant money are more likely to graduate than those who do not.

Pell Grants allow more than 7 million low- to moderate-income students to attend college and complete degrees. Today the maximum grant totals $6,500. Doubling the Pell Grant to $13,000 will accomplish several things simultaneously. First, it will increase the number of low-income students for whom college is affordable. Second, it will reduce student loan borrowing, often the only alternative to students who struggle to pay their tuition bill. Third, it will, over time, increase degree production and reduce income inequality. Finally, increasing the Pell award would provide “free community college” for the families most in need, as the maximum award would cover the costs of tuition and other expenses in nearly all states. 

To be clear, doubling Pell is simple as well as effective. The infrastructure is already in place to distribute these funds to the students who need it most. These students come from all political backgrounds and from every state. While there are other proposals to expand college access, many would require creating complicated, and unproven, new systems at both the state and federal level. 

Congress has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to radically improve the lives of our neediest college students. After the hardship our country has experienced with COVID, we must invest in America’s intellectual infrastructure the way we did with the GI Bill in 1944. The impacts and outcomes of that spending provided a ripple effect that lasted for decades and changed the lives and trajectories of millions of Americans. The time is now for Congress to act.

Ted Mitchell is president of the American Council on Education, the coordinating body for higher education institutions in the United States. As Under Secretary of Education in the Obama administration, he oversaw federal student aid programs including the Pell Grant.