Setting the Record Straight on Pell
Since Hechinger Report released its analysis on the graduation rates of Pell Grant recipients, some people have called the effectiveness of the Pell Grant program into question. Lost in those arguments, though, are three crucial points about the program:
- Since 1972, Pell has been a student voucher designed to improve postsecondary access. President Richard Nixon acknowledged that Pell was designed to provide access so that low-income students could afford postsecondary education. Today, Pell Grants serve nearly 9 million students, most from families with incomes less than $40,000. Nearly half of all Hispanic undergraduate students and more than 60 percent of African American students receive Pell grants.
- Pell grants are bipartisan, and its costs have stabilized. Some analysts have highlighted the increased costs of Pell grants. Since 2000, presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have increased the cost of Pell by increasing the maximum award. In addition, Congress has expanded Pell grant eligibility on a bipartisan basis. During the Great Recession, as many families saw their incomes decline, many more students qualified for Pell; and displaced workers sought to upgrade their skills by returning to college, especially to the for-profit sector. Despite these increases, Pell costs have stabilized in recent years as enrollments have dropped.
- Pell Grants reduce student loan debt, particularly for low-income students. More than 88 percent of Pell grant recipients have student loan debt, with larger debt loads than their wealthier peers. Without Pell grants, student loan debt would be much larger —$300 billion larger — than the $1.3 billion often cited in the media. And students of color and low-income students would be shouldering that extra debt, further delaying major lifetime achievements, like getting married and buying a house.
The real “scandal” here is that states and institutions should be more accountable and share the responsibility of educating and supporting the academic success of low-income students. Instead of proposing to cut off access and opportunity to higher education through cuts to Pell, we propose some Tough Love to highly selective institutions by cutting off eligibility for grant and tax benefits, if colleges fail to enroll their fair share of Pell students.