It’s time to double the Pell Grant

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Katrina is a Pell Grant recipient at Michigan State University. If she had gone to college in the mid-1970s in the early years of this federal program, her grant would have covered around 80 percent of her educational costs. Such financial support had the power to remove barriers and transform lives, putting low-income students on a path to graduate without significant debt.

But Katrina is a student today, when the maximum Pell Grant covers less than a third of a four-year institution’s costs. That’s not to say the grant no longer makes a difference. In fact, Katrina can afford college only thanks to the Pell Grant. But she will also begin post-college life digging herself out of a $30,000 financial hole.

Introduced 50 years ago last month, the Pell Grant’s legacy of extending opportunity is diminishing. As the costs of educating students continue to rise and federal and state government grant aid fails to keep pace, we’re faced with the stark reality that many who want to go to college may no longer find it within reach.

Public colleges and universities were founded on the Jeffersonian ideal of accessible and affordable education for all, not just the elite. How can the federal government and higher education work together to ensure we stay true to our democratic ideals and lift up people from all backgrounds and experiences?

The House Appropriations Committee recently approved raising the maximum Pell Grant to $7,395, a $500 increase. This is a positive step forward but still falls far short of what is needed to alter the financial landscape of higher education.

Instead, Congress should double the maximum annual Pell Grant to $13,000, which on average would cut student debt at least in half for eligible recipients, helping an estimated 25.2 million students per year. As numerous studies suggest, increased aid would lead to higher attendance and graduation rates for these students.

With stronger graduation rates would come many other benefits. Individually, these students could expect a more prosperous future, with the average return on investment of a public college degree being an estimated $765,000, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.

Producing more college graduates would be good not only for individuals but our entire society. According to the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), bachelor’s degree holders pay significantly more in taxes, use fewer government benefits and engage in more civic activity than high school graduates.     

Moreover, the majority of Pell recipients are students of color. That means we could expect doubling the Pell to lead to a deeper, more diverse talent pool for businesses and the careers of today and tomorrow.

Yet, the median six-year graduation rate for Pell students is low at 44 percent. That’s not far off from the overall graduation rate of 48 percent, but it underscores that higher education must do more to foster inclusive and equitable learning environments in which students of all backgrounds can thrive.

Put differently, it’s on us in higher education to demonstrate to lawmakers and taxpayers that an investment in doubling the Pell would pay dividends.  

Across higher education, there are universities undergoing a paradigm shift in this work, recognizing the challenge before us is not “fixing students” but rather reforming ourselves and ensuring students have the academic, social, wellness and financial support to learn, persist and graduate in a timely manner.

The University Innovation Alliance (UIA), of which my institution, Michigan State University, is a founding member, has showcased important work in this space. For example, universities have traditionally offered reactive advising, stepping in only after students find themselves in trouble. As a remedy, UIA members launched a predictive analytics initiative in 2014 to provide proactive advising to students showing early signs of problems. At the University of Texas at Austin, this approach helped lead to a 21 percent increase in Pell graduates.

Likewise, the UIA has addressed the limits of traditional financial aid focused on access. Such aid is undoubtedly important, opening our doors to more underserved students. But as former APLU vice president Shari Garmise reminds us, “Students who discontinue their education for financial reasons often do so when conventional financial aid reaches its limits.” Indeed, we know that even a debt as little as $41 can derail students from graduating.

That’s why the UIA launched a three-year completion grant initiative in 2017 to assist students needing modest financial aid near the end of their studies. With an average grant of just $741, UIA members were able to retain and graduate 83 percent of these students.   

We in higher education are working hard to better support and graduate our students. It’s time for the federal government to step up and do its part, doubling the Pell Grant and investing in the next generation of citizens and leaders.

Samuel L. Stanley Jr. is president of Michigan State University.

Tags graduation rates Michigan State University pell grant Student Debt Crisis student loans

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