Forgiving student loans isn’t enough — Congress must double Pell Grants
We must make higher education more affordable if we want to undo some of the damage the pandemic wrought on college access and degree attainment. Forgiving existing student loan debt, while an important step, is not enough. College-bound students shouldn’t be forced to take on onerous financial burdens in the first place.
That’s why Congress should double the Pell Grant in 2021. President Biden supported this proposal during his campaign last year, but the current federal plan includes only a $400 annual increase. That’s a start, but it’s not enough. By increasing the maximum Pell Grant award to over $12,000, double what it is now, Congress can make a dent in the college affordability crisis and help stem the long-term effects of the pandemic for millions of Americans.
We already know that a college degree is a proven driver of economic well-being and social mobility. Unfortunately, those who stand to gain the most from a college degree — students from low-income backgrounds, who are disproportionately Black and Latino — have also borne the greatest brunt of the pandemic. While college enrollment rates dropped across the board in fall 2020, enrollment for graduates of low-income high schools fell by 10.7 percent, compared to just 4.6 percent for graduates of high-income high schools.
At KIPP Public Schools, our year-over-year college enrollment dropped 16 percent in 2020 — the largest drop we’ve ever had in our nearly 30-year history. Many students told us that they have to stay home and work to support family members who lost their income. Others shared that they were counting on working on- or off-campus jobs to help pay for college, and when those jobs dried up, so did their chance of affording tuition. Over and over again, affordability is the theme that’s keeping these students from college.
For many of our students, the bipartisan Pell Grant program is a key component of their college cost calculations. Created in 1972, this need-based federal aid program provides crucial college funding for approximately seven million students each year, or about one-third of all college undergraduates in America. In 1975-76, the maximum Pell award covered more than three-quarters of the average cost of attendance for a four-year public university, including tuition, fees, and living expenses.
But as college costs have risen, the Pell Grant hasn’t kept up. As of this academic year, the maximum Pell award is $6,345 — less than one-third of what it costs to attend a typical four-year school. The last time Congress dedicated a significant investment to the Pell Grant program was over a decade ago, in the 2009-10 stimulus package. Meanwhile, the National College Attainment Network (NCAN) reports that, as of 2019, only 25 percent of public four-year institutions and fewer than half of public two-year institutions are affordable for the average Pell Grant recipient.
If the maximum Pell Grant award were doubled to over $12,000 per year, more than 80 percent of two- and four-year colleges in the U.S. would become affordable for these students. Research indicates that this increase would drive affordability and equity more effectively than broader propositions — like free public college tuition — that don’t account for family income. Most Pell recipients have family incomes of less than $30,000 per year; this would not only aid economic recovery for these families, but also reduce racial and economic inequities in college enrollment and degree attainment.
We know that where a student goes to college has a huge impact on whether and when they graduate. The Pew Center found that, although an increasing number of students from low-income backgrounds are attending college, they are overwhelmingly enrolling at the country’s least-selective institutions, which may not be best-equipped to support them to and through graduation day. By doubling Pell Grants, Congress can bring a wider variety of educational options within reach for these students, including more-selective institutions with higher graduation rates, as well as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that are often less able to offer generous financial aid due to historic funding disadvantages.
Of course, any investment in Pell Grants must be paired with accountability and transparency measures for institutions. The federal government must address rapidly increasing college costs, and ensure that institutions take concrete, proven steps to support Pell Grant recipients. Moreover, we need annual data on Pell Grant recipients per institution disaggregated by race and ethnicity to improve graduation rates and promote racial equity in higher education
The college affordability crisis in the U.S. has been decades in the making. We won’t undo it all in the shadow of the pandemic. But Congress can take a big bite out of college costs for millions of students who urgently need that support, by doubling the Pell Grant.
Adzua Agyapon is the director of Policy and Advocacy for the KIPP Foundation, a nonprofit network of college preparatory public charter schools.
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