Advocates renew push to double the Pell Grant

by Emma

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Dive Brief:

  • Advocates for doubling the federal Pell Grant renewed their call to Congress in a letter to federal officials released Wednesday. 

  • Nearly 1,200 organizations, including more than 800 colleges and universities, signed on, urging representatives to double the maximum value of the award and index it to inflation. 

  • They could have an opening. President Joe Biden has said he wants to double the Pell Grant, and the passage of the latest relief package freed up the administration and lawmakers to focus on other matters.

Dive Insight:

Higher education interest groups and institutional leaders for years have lobbied the federal government to increase the size of the Pell Grant, which severely lost purchasing power as college costs rose.

It once offset about three-quarters of the cost to attend a public four-year college, while now it covers barely a third of those expenses.

The push to double the maximum Pell grant has taken on new urgency, however, as the pandemic spurs income and job losses among students and their families. The health crisis has also disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic students. The letter to Congress notes almost 60% of Black students, and roughly half of Latinx students, receive Pell Grants annually

While Biden pledged on the campaign trail to double the Pell Grant, the issue wasn’t much of a focus while Congress debated more immediate concerns around coronavirus relief.

Michele Streeter, a senior policy analyst with The Institute for College Access & Success, one of the letter’s signatories, said the coalition is optimistic doubling Pell will now be a high priority for the administration, given Biden’s promise and bipartisan support for the program.

Doubling the Pell Grant has likely not passed muster with Congress before given the additional expense it would generate, Streeter said. The program currently costs around $30 billion per year. 

“It is a high cost,” Streeter said. “But the return on investment is also really high.”

Federal officials could expand the program several ways. In addition to doubling the grants, lawmakers could alter eligibility requirements, limiting how many higher-income students could get them.

It’s unclear what route the Biden administration would take. The U.S. Department of Education did not answer emailed questions about its plan for the Pell Grant by publication time Thursday.

Lawmakers have been discussing other matters concerning the Pell Grant. The latest iteration of the JOBS Act, which would extend eligibility for the grants to programs as short as eight weeks, was introduced in Congress with bipartisan support last week. Current restrictions limit Pell to programs that are at least 15 weeks. 

Critics of the bill say it could enable Pell Grants to be used for shoddy programs with little payoff for students.

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