“Every extra dollar counts,” said Sancia Celestin, a student at George Mason University in Virginia and NCAN policy intern. “Students like me, who are underrepresented minorities, children of immigrants, of low socioeconomic background, and first-generation are fighting for a degree that will bring honor and hope to our families.” And like many other college students across the country, an increase to the Pell Grant makes a difference in her success as a student, said Celestin.
Last month, The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) held an educational panel on Capitol Hill focused on strengthening and securing the Pell Grant program. Participants on the panel included Celestin as well as NCAN’s director of policy and advocacy, Carrie Warick.
The Pell Grant is the cornerstone of federal financial aid. This need-based grant makes college possible for more than 7 million low- and middle-income students every year.
If the Pell Grant program is not adequately funded, two things happen: “many students can’t afford college,” and “it contributes to the crisis in student debt,” said James Kvaal, president of TICAS, an NCAN member organization. Even after receiving financial aid, students are often forced to sacrifice too much when the cost of college exceeds their budgets.
“Almost half of Hispanic and Latinx undergraduate students have Pell Grants, as do almost 60% of black undergraduates,” said Neha Dalal, program and operations coordinator at TICAS. Pell Grants are essential for closing equity gaps. “Unfortunately, this year’s maximum Pell Grant award covers the lowest share of college cost in the program’s history,” said Dalal.
The Pell Grant has failed to keep up with the increasing cost of college. This leaves students with a very high cost to pay out of their own pockets. Pell Grant recipients are more likely to take out student loans, and to borrow more money, than their higher-income peers.
Warick said that although we have made some progress in FAFSA simplification with technology, “we are still seeing great barriers in students being able to access the Pell Grant because of the complicated nature of the FAFSA form.” FAFSA simplification is one of NCAN’s federal policy priorities. Specific recommendations include eliminating unnecessary questions, expediting the process for the neediest students, and decreasing verification.
In fact, “$2.7 billion is left on the table each year in Pell Grant dollars that currently enrolled college students would quality for had they completed the FAFSA. These aren’t low-income students who didn’t go to college because they didn’t fill out the form, these are students who are in college who are somehow figuring out how to pay those [tuition] bills” and other living expenses.
Higher education is the one system that can, “in one generation, fundamentally disrupt problems like poverty in a family,” and the mass incarceration cycle, said Julie Ajinkya, vice president of applied research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP). The Pell Grant program is capable of restoring opportunities for students across the country, which is why IHEP advocates for the restoration of Pell eligibility for currently incarcerated students.
Another panelist, Amy Laitinen, director of higher education at the think tank New America, said that “there must be high-quality alternatives to four-year degrees.” New America is not supportive of the “efforts to increase funding for short-term programs.”
The issue with the very short-term programs is that “people will sign up for [these] programs, they will use their Pell eligibility, and they will be stuck in low-wage jobs,” said Laitinen. This predominately affects people from low-income backgrounds and people of color who are looking for higher-paying jobs or an alternative to a four-year degree. Research must be done to figure out which short-term programs will result in a wage increase and should be funded through the Pell Grant Program, she said.