Whenever I talk with college-access and -success professionals who work with students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, I am struck by their overwhelming sensitivity to how great the needs are for their students. Whether it is a traditional college-age student, an older adult seeking higher education to retool their skills or an adult returning from military service who wants to pursue higher education, the challenges they face to achieve a successful opportunity in higher education are multidimensional.
The Healthcare and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 put $36 billion into the Pell Grant program, which helps secure fiscal support for low-income college students. Nearly 75 percent of all Pell Grant funds are distributed to undergraduate students from families that earn less than $30,000 per year.
Pell Grants supply critical dollars that help ease the financial burden of higher education, particularly as college costs continue to escalate and states and higher education institutions supplant need-based aid with merit-based aid systems that do not provide enough financial assistance to the students who need it most.
Students from the growing number of economically disadvantaged families are being priced out of their primary access points to higher education — two- and four-year public institutions. Nearly 80 percent of low-income students have unmet financial need, compared with just 13 percent of students from more advantaged backgrounds.
The 2006 report from the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance indicated: “Financial barriers are a primary cause of low- and moderate-income, college-qualified high school graduates being unable to attain bachelor’s degrees at the same rate as their middle- and high-income peers.” Although the Pell Grant may not completely solve college-access and completion problems, maintaining the Pell Grant funding at current levels will help alleviate the financial burden of low-income students by keeping college affordable.
There is no clear path to access and success in higher education for low-income and first-generation students without adequate financial support and an array of student-support services. However, the way Congress equivocates when it addresses the Pell Grant shortfall in various legislative vehicles and how it continues to shortchange funding to programs that support low-income students, it appears that our policymakers lack the sensitivity to how great the need is for low-income students to achieve higher education.
Thus, if Congress does not act immediately, the maximum Pell Grant award would fall from $5,550 to $4,705 —a 15 percent loss — beginning in academic year 2011–12. As the need for such funding would outpace available dollars, the number of students served by the program would fall dramatically as well.
The late Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., for whom the Pell Grants and the Pell Institute is named, did not waver about the great need for low-income students. Thus, Pell said, “The strength of the United States is not the gold at Fort Knox or the weapons of mass destruction that we have, but the sum total of the education and the character of our people.”
I urge our policymakers to be more sensitive to how great the need is and to please honor Pell’s commitment to educational access for all students by supporting the inclusion of monies to address the Pell grant shortfall as quickly as possible.
Dr. Chandra Taylor Smith is the director of The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, which conducts and disseminates research and policy analysis to encourage policymakers, educators and the public to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for low-income, first-generation and disabled college students.