Why doubling the Pell Grant should be back on the table

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As Washington winds a tortuous path toward compromise on infrastructure plans that “work” for both Democrats and Republicans, legislative negotiators are moving away from language that achieves a pragmatic, bipartisan aim: doubling the Pell Grant. 

That’s a shame.

For nearly a half-century, Pells have helped lower-income students reduce the price of their college dreams before their families commit assets or income toward tuition—or take out loans. In fact, Pells introduced to many the very possibility of a college education.  Known at their onset in 1972 as Basic Education Opportunity Grants (BEOGs), Pells amount to a down payment on higher education for all financial aid applicants who demonstrate need. (Thankfully, the Senate renamed BEOGs for their originator, Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, in 1980.)

More than so many other well-meaning initiatives and scholarships, Pell Grants remain a “first dollar” program. Pells fund recipients’ student accounts directly with tuition money for up to 12 semesters, including summer sessions.

But Pell Grants have failed to keep pace with cost increases. Around the time Sen. Pell’s colleagues honored him, the grants covered half the cost of college on average; Pells now cover fewer than 30 cents on the dollar. This shortfall leaves many students’ funds well short of the cost of attendance; loans are the logical next step, introducing the concept of “crushing student debt.” The Pell, as researcher Sarah Goldrick-Rab has put it, “effectively serves as a ‘gateway’ to student loans for most families.” Indeed, Pell recipients graduate with about $4,500 more federal student debt than non-Pell graduates. But without Pell grants altogether, most of these students would not have access to a college education at all.

The real problem is the Pell’s annual cap: currently $6,500, with an average award of $4,117. Bipartisan legislation to double the Pell would boost the maximum award to $13,000 and index it to inflation, putting a reasonably priced college education within much closer reach of every student. 

Double Pell would deal a significant blow to student debt woes, according to an analysis by the Gender Equity Policy Institute. With Double Pell, recipients would see their average student debt load cut in half, from $33,342 to $16,487, the report says. Community college students who receive the maximum award will graduate debt-free, according to the report. Among undergraduates pursuing a bachelor’s degree, maximum Pell award recipients would see a 79 percent reduction in debt. With a national movement to advance attainment goals—the numbers of Americans with college degrees—along with the need to reduce student debt while letting students choose their “best fit” institution (whether public, private, or community college), Double Pell is a win-win-win.

The complexity of the college financial aid system remains a barrier. At last count, in 2018, some 661,000 high school seniors left $2.6 billion in free Pell money unclaimed by not filing the mandatory Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Moreover, students in higher-income districts fill out the FAFSA at a rate seven percentage points higher than those in lower-income areas, where the need for financial aid is ostensibly greater.

Here, too, Double Pell would prove effective. For 2022-23, the FAFSA’s gauntlet of 108 questions will be slashed to just 36. Combined with a strengthened Pell, the streamlined FAFSA will mean more students accessing more free money for college, with less debt and less of a day-to-day struggle to make ends meet as they pursue and complete higher education.

It bears noting that Double Pell’s benefits are not limited to rising high-school seniors. Indeed, the Gender Equity Policy Institute report found that nearly 12 million people eligible for the grants—disproportionately women and people of color—already have some college credit, but no degree. I am urging lawmakers to come back to the table and find a way to make doubling Pell grants a reality. We need this dramatic increase in first-dollar funding via Double Pell so that degree pursuers of all kinds can cast aside onerous loans and work hours, clearing a path to the college graduation they are working to achieve. 

Jo Allen is president of Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.  

Tags College debt Pell Grant

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