Pell Grants have leveled the college playing field for low-income students — let's expand them

Pell Grants have leveled the college playing field for low-income students — let's expand them
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Financial hardships created by the pandemic continue to force college students to make the life-altering choice between their basic needs and their postsecondary ambitions. Dropping out costs them the additional $1 million in lifetime earnings expected for a bachelor's degree graduate and hinders the nation's economic recovery. 

Fortunately, we have a proven, means-tested and equitable tool at our disposal to make higher education attainable: the Pell Grant. But the time has come to do more. There is a concerted national effort underway to ask Congress to double the maximum award to $13,000 to restore its purchasing power and better help millions of students attain a degree.

Currently, the Pell Grant covers just 28 percent of the average cost of attendance at a four-year public university, compared to 79 percent four decades ago. Put in starker terms, a student would have to work  52 hours each week in a minimum-wage job to afford just one year of attendance. 

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Doubling Pell offers a running start, a generational opportunity to level the playing field for students from lower-income backgrounds and communities of color. Since nearly all high-wage jobs moving forward will require a bachelor's degree, an investment like this is an economic and moral imperative. It will help Americans graduate and minimize the debt they incur along the way, ensuring they have the funds to invest in homes, businesses and their cities and towns — all essential to a full recovery from the pandemic

Doubling the maximum Pell Grant award is not a panacea for current and prospective students bearing the brunt of the pandemic, especially those in need of immediate support. Colleges also need to double down on their commitments to financial aid and offer transparency about the full cost of a degree with no surprise fees — something we've done at the University of Dayton, where I serve as president, to drive decreases in student loan borrowing across every race and socioeconomic background. Institutions also need to expand partnerships to connect with students in hard-to-reach communities and renew investments in holistic support services to help students navigate ongoing challenges from the pandemic.

But Doubling Pell can make an immediate difference. This work is deeply personal to me as a member of the steering committee for the national American Talent Initiative (ATI), which has a goal of educating 50,000 additional lower-income students at high-graduation-rate institutions nationwide. I know the talent is out there, but equal opportunity is not. I'm proud that many colleges have recommitted to the effort to attract, enroll and graduate more lower-income students through ATI. 

For now, though, countless students continue to navigate COVID-19's financial repercussions. Moments like these in our history require bold solutions. Taking action today to expand access to a grant program that boasts a five-decade track record of success, is accessible to all students and offers the promise to bridge the affordability gap is a good place to start.

Eric Spina is president of the University of Dayton and vice chair of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which helps manage the national #DoublePell campaign.