The Double Pell discussion is alive and well again, but for how long?
In his 2023 fiscal year budget proposal, the Biden Administration doubled down again on its offer of sweeping relief for students across higher education – namely boosting the maximum Pell Grant award to $13,000 by 2029, with an immediate gift of an extra $1,775 in 2023-24 that would push it to $8,670.
However, all of the $88 billion in funding earmarked for the Department Education is nice in theory but likely to be swept aside by Republicans and even some Democrats in Congress, suffering the same fate as the President’s almost dead Build Back Better plan. He is still holding out hope as he goes for broke with a lofty, reworked vision for the nation, referring Monday to this budget as “building a better America.”
Help for education, both for schools and students from pre-K through college completion, is just one of many large-ticket items in a $5.8 trillion budget offer that includes massive outlays for defense, assistance for Ukraine, health care and climate change. Biden wants to tax the affluent to pay for a good portion of it and says he will cut the federal deficit by more than $1 trillion in the process – and both already have received eyebrow-raising looks from many politicians.
But for at least a moment, the spin was strong and there were many leaders across the higher education landscape that liked what they saw. Maybe some or all of it will survive and give the industry a sorely-needed jolt.
“Across the country, we must focus our efforts on recovery,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “That means ensuring all students—especially those from underserved communities and those most impacted by the pandemic—receive the resources they need to thrive. Importantly, this budget invests in access to affordable higher education and the creation of stronger pathways that meet the demands of our workforce and connect students to well-paying jobs and fulfilling careers.”
Many organizations with tie-ins to higher education lauded the inclusion of workforce pathways for all students, additional help for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and of course, giving students more affordable postsecondary options by heavily expanding the Pell Grant programs and its awards. The new proposed Pell number of $8,670 is $2,175 more than in 2021-22. The recently approved omnibus package included an additional $400 for Pell.
“This budget proposal is a significant step in the right direction to expand access to postsecondary education to more low- and middle-income students, and restore some of the purchasing power of the Pell Grant,” said Justin Draeger, President and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA). “Of course, these proposals must come with accompanying legislation, and additional funding must come with renewed efforts to examine the entire student aid system, not the least of which includes a reexamination of how the current student loan system is or isn’t working for students and families. We call on members of Congress to work across the aisle to make that a reality.”
Student loan debts have toppled more than 1.8 trillion, with the average borrower owing around $32,000. That sobering number and the enticing lure of entering the workforce out of high school has pulled some students away from postsecondary education. Enrollment declines continue to plague the industry overall, especially the community college sector. A boost to Pell could solve a lot of those concerns.
“Strengthening the need-based Pell Grant is one of the best, and best-targeted, ways to help close equity gaps by race, ethnicity, and income in postsecondary attainment,” said Kim Cook, CEO of the National College Attainment Network (NCAN). “Everyone should have the opportunity to complete affordable, high-quality education after high school. But that isn’t always the case.”
Biden’s proposed budget could go a long way to bridging those gaps. He also wants to put $200 million toward Career-Connected High Schools that “would support competitive grants to partnerships of local educational agencies, institutions of higher education – including community colleges – and employers, to support early enrollment in postsecondary and career-connected coursework.” It also would foster experiential learning and create more instruction for students from high school through college.
One of the signature parts on the higher ed ledger is additional support for HBCUs, Tribal Colleges, Minority-Serving Institutions and community colleges. Under the Biden proposal, they would see a boost of $752 million over the 2021 budget, including a whopping $450 million targeted to research and infrastructure improvements.
“This budget would help millions of students realize the benefits of a college degree,” said Sameer Gadkaree, President of The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS). “The budget also proposes key funds for the Office of Civil Rights and resources for the Office of Federal Student Aid to better protect and support student loan borrowers. We applaud the administration’s continued focus on protecting students’ and borrowers’ rights while addressing racial and economic equity.”
Not satisfied with how the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) has handled requests from borrowers over the years, the Biden Administration also wants to pour in $800 million to improve customer service. One notable exclusion is free community college, though the Administration does want to give more than $200 million to foster better pathways and training.