Dems reintroduce Pell Grant bill, get support of education leaders

The Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act would incrementally boost aid to students, eventually doubling by 2027-28, and include undocumented students.

A day after a team of leaders from the Democrat Party reintroduced a bill called the Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act of 2021, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) also called for a similar push to effectively double Pell Grants for students in need.

NAFSAA officials say Pell Grants, which will max out at $6,495 for the upcoming academic year, have not kept up with inflation or the rising costs of postsecondary tuition and fees. The organization joins a coalition of others across higher education and politicians who are pressing for change.

“This is more than just a college access and economic mobility issue, it’s a critical part of a social justice movement that seeks to create equal opportunity for all,” NASFAA President Justin Draeger said. “We know that Pell is a critical component in supporting postsecondary access for students of color and first-generation college students. Doubling the Pell Grant would be a monumental step that would benefit students from historically underrepresented populations.”

U.S. Department of Education figures show that 58% of Black students and 47% of Hispanic students receive Pell Grant aid and nearly 90% of those awards go to families who earn $50,000 or less. But NAFSAA says Congress has only incrementally added to those awards over the past decade – in fact, from 2011-12 to 2019-20, the increases on maximum awards totaled just $645.

Perhaps more significant is the lack of affordability still facing the 6.7 million students who receive those grants. The maximum award in 2020 covered only 26% of the cost of attendance at public four-year universities and less than 15% of costs at private four-year colleges. Students that often need the most assistance – those who attend public two-year institutions who are not living with family – had only 31% of their costs covered.

“Over the last decade, the value of the Pell Grant has steadily declined—from covering nearly fourth-fifths of the cost of attendance at a public, four-year institution at its height, to less than one-third,” Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said. “With the Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act, we have a real opportunity to restore the value of the Pell Grant for generations of students.”

The impact of the Act

It is likely that, short of any emergency relief effort, doubling the grant to $13,000 would take a bit of time to develop. The grant award year begins July 1.

The political leaders pressing for change – led by Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Sens. Hirono and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) – noted that the Pell grant would be boosted by $1,475 for the 2022-2023 year before the grants then increase incrementally – reaching that “double” status in 2027-28. But by 2023-24, it would already have reached $9,000. Those steps effectively will end up “restoring the purchasing power of the Pell Grant,” according to a fact sheet released by Scott and other leaders on the proposed bill.

In addition to making the fund fully mandatory and doubling Pell Grant awards, the Act would provide several other caveats for students:

  • Allow access to awards for DREAMers, undocumented students who currently are not eligible for federal financial aid. It would also add stopgap measures for students who are underachieving academically to alert them when their grades plummet, giving them time to improve and keep their Pell Grant status intact.
  • Automatically install the maximum Pell award to those who receive aid through SNAP, Medicaid and other federal programs and give those students as much as $1,500 in additional support.
  • Reinstate lifetime eligibility to 18 semesters, effectively giving nontraditional students further opportunity to stay Pell eligible over the current 12 semesters.
  • Allow part-time students to further benefit by placing the minimum award at 5% of the maximum, instead of 10%

President Joe Biden has backed Pell Grant increases since the election campaign. And this current bill has received support from top Democrat senators, including Cory Booker (NJ), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), along with influential House members Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Eric Swallwell (Calif.), Jerry Nadler (NY) and Val Demings (Fla.). But the announcement did not include any Republican legislators.

Many influential organizations have backed doubling the Pell, including the American Association of University Professors, American Federation of Teachers, National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, National Association for College Admission Counseling, National Education Association, State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, National Association of College and University Business Officers, The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, National College Attainment Network and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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