House-approved $400 Pell Grant boost is ‘significant’ but falls short of hopes

Higher education advocates are still seeking a doubling of maximum awards, or getting closer to Biden's $2,000 proposal.
By: | March 10, 2022
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As part of the U.S. House passage of the $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill late Wednesday night, representatives have approved a $400 annual increase for federal Pell Grant program recipients, the largest in a decade. But while every dollar matters, it is still far short of what many higher education experts say is a much-needed doubling of awards for students.

The infusion of an additional $24.58 billion in discretionary funds means the maximum Pell award would reach $6,895 if the legislation is pushed through by the Senate, a likelihood given its timing – a government shutdown could occur early Saturday if it isn’t – and because of the inclusion of immediate funding for the $13 billion to the Ukraine war effort backed by both Republicans and Democrats.

Though just a nominal boost, advocates say the Pell help is a welcome relief as the Biden Administration aims to get closer to the $2,000 shorter-term goal pitched by the president.

“This $400 increase would be a step in the right direction toward NCAN’s priority of doubling the maximum Pell Grant,” said Kim Cook, CEO of the National College Attainment Network. “Double Pell would restore the maximum grant’s purchasing power to half the average cost of attendance for a bachelor’s degree at an in-state, public institution. We urge Congress to pass this Pell Grant increase to make college more affordable and help reverse recent enrollment declines.”

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), the Education and Labor Committee Chairman, heralded the omnibus passage, even though he and other representatives were targeting at least a $1,475 increase by 2022-23 on their way to the ultimate mission of hitting $13,000 per year for the “cornerstone of our student aid system.” One of the most significant parts of the legislation is $363 million more invested in HBCUs.

“The package provides significant investments to lower the cost of college, support vulnerable institutions of higher education, and promote pathways to rewarding careers,” Scott said. “The bill secures a notable funding increase for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities, and Minority Serving Institutions.”

While the bill does not include $15 billion toward the COVID-19 relief effort, something House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called “heartbreaking” and may affect colleges, for higher education there is an increase of funding for apprenticeships and the inclusion of a student success grant program to help try to improve retention and completion. However, there was still no inclusion of aid for community colleges, something promised in the early stages of Build Back Better plan that eventually got tabled.

In all, higher education is set to receive approximately $450 million more than in last year’s fiscal budget. In addition to the funding tabbed for HBCUs, there is $183 million being targeted for Hispanic Serving Institutions and $44 million for Tribal Colleges and Universities. In addition, the bill includes items that have ties to higher ed, including:

  • $1.14 billion for Federal TRIO programs
  • $378 million for GEAR UP
  • $59 million for Teacher Quality Partnerships
  • $65 million for the Child Care Access Means Parents in School
  • $895 million for the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program
  • $1.21 billion for Federal Work Study
  • $2.1 billion for Career, Technical and Adult Education
  • $24 billion for NASA to look into climate change, including $60 million for the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program
  • $180 million each for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities
  • $50 million for Strengthening Community College grants
  • $20 million to improve enrollment and retention outcomes for rural students
  • $15 million for a new career pathway program at the Department of Labor

Not meant to be

Biden originally promised a doubling of Pell Grant awards but has dialed back that level of support since taking office. At his State of the Union address a week ago, he offered a $2,000 proposal he hoped Congress would take on. That, and the inclusion of more aid for HBCUs, got the attention of several national organizations and advocacy groups because it would have been a significant jump from the $550 proposed in the now-stalled Build Back Better plan.

“This is historic,” Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president for public policy and government affairs at UNCF, said at the time. “For the president of the United States to not only mention HBCUs in his State of the Union address, but to call for increased funding along with joining our effort to increase, and hopefully soon double the Pell Grant, is something we cannot help but be excited about. It is rare in Washington for a leader to stand by priorities. It is rarer for HBCUs to be that priority. President Biden is really showing that he stands with students from vulnerable backgrounds and the institutions that best serve their needs, and those are HBCUs.”

Justin Draeger, CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, had been hoping for more as more than 1,000 orgainzations have called on Congress to double Pell.

“While this is a welcome step forward, there is still a long way to go to ensure the purchasing power of the Pell Grant is restored for the approximately 6 million low- and moderate-income students who depend on the program to enroll in college each year,” he said.