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December 18, 2020

Keeping the Promise: Stabilizing the Pell Grant Program, an Opportunity for Bipartisan Leadership in the 117th Congress

This blog post is part of a series of introductions for our College Promise Policy Briefs, which aim to critically analyze Promise related research and program experiences in order to offer recommendations for actions or evidence-based policies to leaders of the College Promise movement.

This week, Dr. Steven Katsinas, Dr. Nathaniel J. Bray, Noel E. Keeney, Hunter D. Whann, and Michael S. Malley, Jr. from the University of Alabama’s Education and Policy Center write about their research into trends and potential areas of policy improvement for Pell Grants in  ‘Keeping the Promise: Stabilizing the Pell Grant Program, an Opportunity for Bipartisan Leadership in the 117th Congress’.

In the information age, a college education is often a job requirement. Many Americans believe they have no choice but to obtain a degree, yet the high cost of college bars some students from pursuing higher education and saddles many of those attending with the long-term burden of student loans. Student debt has quintupled from $330 billion in FY2003 to $1.6 trillion in FY2020. Bipartisan leadership at the state and local levels is turning to policy solutions that offer hope to students who are losing faith in their ability to use college as a vehicle for economic mobility. College Promise programs, which seek to make college as universally accessible and free as high school, have already seen  significant success improving college access and affordability. Yet now is the time to reexamine policies at the federal level, particularly Pell Grants, as we usher in a new presidential administration.

After the recent federal elections, a divided government is probable and as a result, targets of opportunity in the 117th Congress will likely be issues that have seen bipartisan cooperation in recent years. The Pell Grant, an essential part of every College Promise in the 35 states and 360 communities that have a program, is therefore a prime target. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017 passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and included provisions restoring year-round (Summer) Pell, which had previously been eliminated in 2012. Policymakers should capitalize on the success and momentum of bi-partisan support to address identified weaknesses in the Pell policy structure.

Since 2011, the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center has conducted 20 studies of Pell Grants. This brief reviews trends in Pell data and proposes three issue areas ripe for reexamination and improvement. The three major areas of concern are:

  • The Pell Applicant-Awardee gap has quadrupled to over 8 million and growing.
  • The Pell Grant has been subject to volatile funding and has not kept pace with rising costs. The average award of $3,400 in 1975-76 was not exceeded in real dollars until 2008-9, a third of a century later.
  • The Pell Coverage Gap is large and growing. In 2017-18, the average Pell award did not cover basic costs for two-thirds of U.S. community college students.

The federal government must do better by academically-talented, economically-disadvantaged students to help them earn high-quality degrees and certificates. Stable, predictable Pell funding is key. Low-income students should not be subject to a dysfunctional budget process [13]. College access and completion can no longer be discretionary, it is time to fix Pell and make it an entitlement, including maintenance of effort provisions as a condition of receiving federal Title IV student aid.

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