Why Doubling the Pell Grant is Good Public Policy

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As our nation emerges from the shroud of fog left by the COVID-19 pandemic, our country will focus on repairing relationships, rebuilding our nation, and setting our economy back to recovery. One way we will do this is by supporting investments in our people and ensuring greater access to higher education. There is no single program that has done more for low-income students than the Pell Grant. The federal infrastructure exists to help more students, which is why I am calling on Congress to double the Pell Grant.  

Pell Grants have helped more than 100 million individuals from low- and middle-income households to pursue their dreams for higher education. These grants greatly impact liberal arts and Jesuit institutions such as the one I lead, Le Moyne College in Syracuse. According to the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, for the 2017-18 academic year, nearly one in every four undergraduates at the nation's 27 U.S. Jesuit institutions were Pell Grant recipients. At Le Moyne, which has a long history of support for first-generation students, approximately a third of undergraduates receive Pell Grants. Our six-year graduation rate for Pell recipients stands at 72%, significantly higher than the national average of 51% (for Pell recipients).

Pell Grants help address what are arguably the three most significant challenges facing higher education today – affordability, accessibility, and completion. Our nation has grappled with income inequality and related barriers for some time, and inequality has worsened during the pandemic. Doubling down on Sen. Claiborne Pell's vision by doubling the maximum Pell grant award for college students can help us get through these crises. While much more can be done to address income inequality, taking such a step will help lower barriers and make higher education accessible for all. 

Recently, I joined with nearly 1,200 other college, university, and association leaders to champion an initiative supported broadly by organizations including the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), the American Association of Community Colleges, the Association of Public Land-grant Universities, and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities to double the Pell Grant. NAICU has described this as the "single most important step Congress can take to make college more accessible for low-income and first-generation students." Our goal is to double the maximum Pell award to $13,000 by June 2022, the 50th anniversary of the program's establishment. To achieve that, Congress must act now.  

There is another compelling reason we should double the maximum Pell Grant: it has not kept up with the costs of higher education. According to the Institute for College Access and Success: "At its peak in 1975-76, the maximum Pell Grant covered more than 75% of the cost of attending a four-year public college. The 2018-19 maximum award amount covers just 28% of that cost."

I remain deeply concerned about the rising cost of receiving a college degree. Like many private institutions, Le Moyne dedicates an increasing amount of our operating budget to financial aid in order to remain affordable. Still, the rising cost of an undergraduate degree is a problem that requires long-term strategies and approaches, not a quick fix. Making a college education accessible and affordable is a shared responsibility requiring commitment and action across the public and private sectors. To that end, the Jesuit institutions in the U.S. have routinely increased their investment in institutional, need-based aid for students, increasing that aid from $344 million in 2001 to more than $2.6 billion in 2018. 

But given the urgency in spurring our national economic recovery, doubling Pell is the surest and fastest investment we can make in our human infrastructure. Wellesley College Economics Professor Philip Levine wrote that doubling the amount of Pell Grants is efficient and equitable: "It corrects a market imperfection, encouraging college attendance among students who may otherwise choose not to go because they cannot afford it (efficient). It does so by specifically targeting students from lower-income families (equitable)."

Not every government program works the way it was intended, but the Pell Grant does. With nearly five decades of success, Pell Grants are means-tested and provide students with choices instead of driving them to attend a college or university that may not be the best fit in terms of access, affordability, and success.

Doubling the Pell Grant allows students to dream big and enroll at the institution that will set them on their defined path.  It is an investment that pays off not just for the individual but for the nation. According to NAICU, the biggest jump one sees in economic earnings comes with completing the bachelor's degree – 40.7% above the previous degree (NAICU Community Impact 2021).

Higher education must continue to increase affordability, accessibility, and completion. We know from five decades of experience that the Pell Grant program is a high-impact form of assistance that has changed millions of lives for the better. The time is right to double the grant amount so that the lives of individuals, and society as a whole, will continue to improve, and our nation will move on the path toward recovery.

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