Momentum Builds to Double Pell Grant

Momentum Builds to Double Pell Grant
portrait of Anne Dennon
By Anne Dennon

Published on August 10, 2021

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The Double Pell Alliance wants to get the maximum Pell Grant award doubled by the program’s 50th anniversary next year. The #DoublePell movement aims to reach millions of students and families and, from there, representatives in all 435 congressional districts.

Pell Grants form the foundation of federal student financial aid — about 40% of all undergraduate students receive Pell funding. Doubling the maximum award amount would increase the potential pool of federal money for education from $6,500 to $13,000 for nearly 7 million students.

The alliance of around 900 colleges and 1,200 higher education organizations calls doubling the federal investment in Pell “long overdue," and projects it would "drive economic recovery, help address racial and economic inequities in college completion rates, and increase overall educational attainment.”

Almost 90% of students who receive Pell aid come from families that earn $50,000 or less. More than half of college students of color receive Pell Grants. The importance of Pell Grants to underrepresented minorities on campus led to grassroots calls to expand Pell funding before now; a coalition of HBCUs, for example, championed expansion of the Pell program without gaining the same traction.

In March, the Double Pell Alliance asked Congress to double the grant. Soon after, Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) reintroduced the Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act, which would gradually increase the Pell Grant, hitting the #DoublePell goal in 2027-2028. The bill would also make DACA students eligible for Pell and allow students to access the funding for up to 18 semesters rather than 12.

Pell Grant Supporters Rally Ahead of Budget Process

While advocates push the government to double the maximum Pell Grant to $13,000 within the next few years, Biden proposed a $1,400 increase in his American Families Plan. Senate Democrats' current budget reconciliation blueprint would increase the maximum Pell by $400, from $6,495 to $6,895.

The $3.5 trillion budget resolution advanced by Senate Democrats doesn't double the Pell, but it recommends increasing the maximum award amount alongside investing in minority-serving institutions. The resolution's provisions for higher education instead center on providing two years of free community college.

Maintaining the extra large budget for federal spending on all sectors, including higher education, will require support from all 50 Democratic members, though some disagree with the spending. The country is approaching its national debt limit. Republicans are expected to unanimously oppose the measure.

The Double Pell Alliance has signaled it would be happy with incremental increases to the maximum award, but that its advocacy won’t be complete until the Pell is doubled. The contested budget's $400 increase for Pell represents a small fraction of the $6,500 it would take to double the award.

Pell Grants Make Unaffordable College More Affordable

Pell Grant awards, established in 1965, have not kept up with the inflating costs of higher education. Today Pell grants cover less than a third of the costs of a four-year degree — the lowest share of college costs since the program's founding.

While the grants make college possible for many, some argue that Pell Grants lead to rising college costs. Institutional costs have risen sharply over the same time span, with administrative bulk and the costly campus amenities thought to help schools climb college rankings. Doubling that federal income could ultimately inflate tuition by further removing the onus from colleges and universities to keep costs down.

Investing billions more in Pell Grants, which may be used at postsecondary schools like colleges and vocational schools, also precludes investing in other, cheaper education alternatives. Pell dollars can't be spent on apprenticeships, certifications, micro-credentials, or boot camps, limiting accessibility for students who don't want to pursue college degrees.

Feature Image: Phil Roeder / Moment / Getty Images

Biden proposes expanding the college grant program, as a bipartisan Senate bill looks to extend the program to cover short-term certificates. College students stand to benefit from Biden's new proposals, which include two years of free community college, more Pell Grant funding, and retention efforts. The Pell Grant is a form of federal aid designed to assist low-income students. Learn how to apply for the award, how much you can earn, and who is eligible.