As of this writing, COVID-19 has sickened over 3 million people in the U.S., and over 100,000 Americans have tragically lost their lives to this pandemic. But these are just the most public tolls of this virus. We are only beginning to realize the increasingly dire situation faced by our nation’s students seeking higher education. To combat this growing education crisis, Congress should invest in a dramatic and sustained increase to the Pell Grant program to ensure our nation’s future economic wellbeing.
The Pell Grant program is financial assistance provided by the federal government to low- and lower-middle-income families. It is the foundation of college aid for over 7 million students annually, including nearly 60 percent of Black students and nearly half of Hispanic students. Unlike student loans, Pell Grants do not have to be repaid, eliminating or significantly reducing college debt. Most Pell Grant dollars go to students and families that make under $40,000 a year, a group currently facing a disproportionately high unemployment rate.
This fall, qualifying students will each receive up to $6,345 in Pell Grants to attend college. This may sound like a lot, but it covers only 28 percent of tuition, fees, room and board at a public four-year college. When including state and institutional aid, only 45 percent of community colleges and 25 percent of public four-year schools are affordable to a recipient of the average Pell Grant.
The COVID-19 virus has already created new financial obstacles for students, universities and states that threaten our ability to produce the college graduates we need to be an economically robust society. States have announced massive budget cuts for higher education, parents and students working to pay for college have been laid off and college savings accounts have been decimated, with some 529 funds experiencing losses as great as 20 percent.
For instance, Ohio announced $775 million in state budget cuts, with $110 million being reductions in public higher education spending. Likewise, showing the unpredictability of whether “free college” plans can weather our current crisis, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has proposed $71 million in cuts to his state’s program that helps cover the cost of community college for students seeking employment in high-demand occupations.
These grim economic problems have been compounded by the stress of whether a student or their loved ones may get sick with COVID-19. These stressors have led students to question whether to start or continue their post-secondary education. Unfortunately, students who delay the start of their college education jeopardize future earnings and become less likely to pursue or complete a degree. The evidence is very clear that students who interrupt their post-secondary education are much less likely to complete college than those who persist.
This comes at a time when nearly nine out of 10 new jobs being created are going to those with a bachelor’s degree. Notably, bachelor’s degree holders can earn over $30,000 — or 75 percent — more annually than those with only a high school diploma. More alarming, African American men with only a high school diploma earn 12 percent less than their counterparts did 40 years ago.
To combat these threats to the knowledge and talent pool in our country, Congress must immediately act to double the maximum Pell Grant award for the fall. This dramatic increase will significantly reduce the doubt students have about whether they can afford college next year and counteract the impact of job loss due to COVID-19. Additionally, to combat the long-term economic impact of this virus in combination with the rising cost of college, Congress must set the Pell Grant to automatically adjust for inflation each year.
The National College Attainment Network (NCAN), where I serve as executive director, has long advocated that a sustained investment of this type will ensure first-generation students, students of color and students from low- and lower-middle-income backgrounds can minimize debt, maximize completion and secure our nation’s economic future. This certainty is even more critical now.
Kim Cook is executive director of the National College Attainment Network, a nonprofit whose members in 49 states are committed to build, strengthen, and empower communities and stakeholders to close equity gaps in post-secondary attainment for all students.