Double Pell! 1,200 colleges, advocates ask Congress to act

A coalition of colleges and universities, along with education organizations, draft a letter to political leaders asking to increase grant money for students.
By: | March 25, 2021
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The DoublePell grassroots effort gained further momentum on Thursday as more than 1,200 organizations including nearly 900 colleges and universities drafted a letter to Congress calling for further financial assistance for students.

Doubling the Pell Grant, proposed by scores of institutions over the past year and backed by President Joe Biden during his presidential campaign, would provide a burden-easing lifeline for nearly seven million students in need. For example, those who received the maximum eligible grant of nearly $6,500 would have it adjusted to $13,000 and be able to offset cost-of-living and education expenses.

The coalition says the move is necessary in helping students who have experienced hardships both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic and who likely will struggle to balance their financial pictures in the future. Several individual colleges already have asked Congress for Pell Grant help, but this solidarity – which includes the National College Attainment Network and The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), UNCF along with powerful Ivy League schools and university systems across the country – is nearly unprecedented.

“The wide variety of organizations and institutions joining this letter shows a level of agreement not always seen in higher education: that students from low- and middle- income backgrounds are struggling to pay for college and that a widespread, accessible solution is needed to address the college affordability problem as students enter and persist in college,” said Carrie Warick, director of policy and advocacy for NCAN.

It is unclear whether the President, whose team is working with Senate Democrats on a reported $3 trillion recovery plan that includes education, will address doubling the Pell Grant at this time. He and Vice President Kamala Harris did highlight it as a priority in their Plan for Education Beyond High School during the presidential campaign, citing its many benefits in “closing the gap between the rich and poor” while “expanding it to include more middle-class Americans”.

Who would the potential revamp help?

“Nearly every student who currently receives a Pell Grant will benefit from this historic investment, as well as many who currently do not receive the Pell Grant and would become newly eligible for at least a partial award,” Warick said. “And because students can use the Pell Grant at all Title IV eligible institutions, students at public and private, two-year and four-year institutions will all benefit.”

Why further assistance is needed

Though millions of students enjoy the benefits of the programs, the amounts are not nearly enough to offset the rising costs they face. Pell Grants once covered between 70-80% of a cost of four-year degree programs, according to TICAS. Now, that number is about 33%. That also has fueled a severe student loan debt crisis – where students owe $1.7 trillion, or about $32,000 per individual – according to the Federal Reserve.

One astounding statistic noted in the letter from the coalition is this: “grant recipients who borrow graduate with over $4,500 more debt than their higher-income peers.” Those realities also have pushed students to question the value and affordability of higher education. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center noted a 6.8% drop in first-time enrollment of 2020 high school graduates during the fall and there were continuing declines into the spring. Many students from underrepresented communities are being left out of the college equation or having to reconsider remaining at their institutions because of financial burdens.

“For public institutions specifically: NCAN defines college affordability as the average Pell Grant recipient being able to afford in-state college without being asked to contribute beyond their Expected Family Contribution, an average loan, and reasonable work,” Warick said. “Using that definition, in 2017-18 – before the pandemic and related economic downtown – only half of community colleges and a quarter of community colleges were affordable. If the Pell Grant had been doubled, over 80% of both types of institutions would be affordable for the average Pell Grant recipient. (www.ncan.org/affordability)”

Doubling the Pell Grant would further assist the nearly 60 percent of Black students and almost half of all Latinx students receiving awards every year. Additional monies would help quell fears of food insecurity, on-time housing payments and cover job losses while keeping them in school. It also could open the doors for those who feel they can’t afford college.

“Many students who may have been previously wary of trying higher education may be more willing to do so knowing they have a larger amount of grant aid and may not need to take out as high of a loan burden or work as many hours,” Warick said. “As for retention, research shows that an emergency costing as little as $300 can cause a student to drop out of college. Having less financial burden while enrolled – such as working fewer hours or having savings to cover an emergency – should support students in persisting toward their degree or certificate.”