It’s 2016 — an election year. It is the last year that President Obama will submit a budget to Congress, while issues of student loan debt and college costs are being discussed broadly on the campaign trail and at kitchen tables across the country.

But even with these political dynamics, there is reason to be hopeful that there could be some movement to improve higher education prospects for Pell students.

The president’s fiscal year 2017 budget proposes full-time Pell students be provided the option to continue their studies year-round. Although Pell has always focused on broadening access to higher education, the goal of year-round Pell was to incentivize Pell students to complete their degree in less time and with less overall debt. And, as I have outlined earlier, Pell students are primarily low-income, with higher levels of student loan debt than their wealthier peers. Moreover, for underrepresented minority undergraduates, more than half receive Pell awards.

Year-round Pell has bipartisan support. Initially, it was proposed in President George W. Bush’s 2006 budget. The provision was successfully inserted into the 2008 higher education reauthorization act.

Unfortunately, the year-round Pell provision was eliminated a few years later. At the height of the recession, Pell costs grew beyond what was estimated and budgeted for, and the Pell program faced large shortfalls. Students and advocates were worried that grants would decline, forcing students to bear more of the cost of college.

So to shore up funding for Pell and prevent cuts to the maximum award, Congress enacted piecemeal changes to student aid eligibility, including eliminating year-round Pell.

But times have changed. Pell program costs have declined; recent estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) forecast that Pell will not face a shortfall for many years.

This provides Congress the opportunity to actually do something positive in 2016 on college costs and affordability for low-income Pell students. The budget released today provides an attractive offer to Congress to restore Pell grants for students who want to accelerate their studies and attend college for the entire year.

Here are three reasons to be optimistic:

  1. There is bipartisan interest in both the House and Senate to restore year-round Pell.
  2. Rather than cutting away at Pell, the new CBO estimates provide Congress with the opportunity to strengthen Pell, using existing budgetary resources assumed in the baseline Pell budget.
  3. And the proposed provision can be enacted through a timely “regular order” appropriations process by Sept. 30.

Moreover, taking action now will have real benefits down the road. Investing resources and funding into Pell today increases the likelihood that those dollars will be there for future Pell students. Said another way, it decreases the possibility that Pell funds would be cut for deficit reduction or re-allocated to another program.

We know the current president wants to do something to get low-income students to graduation with less student loan debt.

The larger question is if Congress — in 2016 — wants to do the same.

Photo credit: Mquirk