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Financial Aid Must Go Further

The importance of Pell Grant funding and other forms of need-based financial aid – including aid programs at the state and institutional levels – are well established and fiercely debated by secondary and postsecondary educators, among others, who work with students and families on a daily basis. Hence the flurry of activity, advocacy and commentary here in Washington and around the country given an unfortunate recent proposal by Congress to cut Pell Grant spending.


Pell is indeed the financial lifeblood for millions of low-income students seeking postsecondary education, and is further relied upon by the thousands of institutions and the academic departments that confer a wide array of degrees and credentials.


This includes two- and four-year STEM departments struggling to remediate an ill-prepared student population for college-level math and science coursework. This is compounded by course sequences in STEM that often require more credits for graduation than other majors – circumstances that lead to a longer time to a degree and the subsequent need for a steady stream of financial aid for STEM students, in particular.


Just as troubling are the drastic cuts to higher education that states have made in light of their own budget deficits, most often resulting in cuts to financial aid that already poorly keeps pace with rising tuition. Practically every state in the nation has made cuts to higher education and financial aid, some more extreme than others, thus placing the financial burden of higher education on students and families alone – a scenario that necessarily restricts access and degree completion.


Of course, STEM students are not the only ones in jeopardy of not enrolling in or finishing college; yet, an irony lies in the fact that the STEM fields are some of the fastest growing occupations in the world and are often where policymakers look to boost state and local economies. If STEM is so important to our economic recovery, national innovation goals and ultimately our global competitiveness, then where are the incentives for students to pursue and complete STEM degrees?


As a first step to answering this question, we must press policymakers to rethink Pell – the number one federal policy lever for higher education – with an ultimate intention of pro-actively ensuring that low-income students seeking higher education have the support to complete sought after credentials.


Tying the Pell Grant program to enrollments alone provides no financial incentive for institutions to complete students in any discipline, including STEM. This is not to say that Congress should tie Pell funding to completion alone, but one should revisit just how we award Pell and how we can do so in a way that serves low-income students by providing the right institutional incentives.


Further, recent proposals to eliminate year-round Pell will harm low-income students who need to attend college in the fall, spring, and summer terms – a common scenario for underrepresented STEM students needing remediation between high school graduation and freshman year of college. Even the most motivated and scientifically inclined students may not choose to study STEM if it looks like a long road to graduation and thus a much more expensive proposition.


Next, if states and institutions are indeed serious about their STEM investment, then they must rethink merit aid that lacks a need-based component. Such aid is often used to attract top talent and thus often helps students who already are going to college, and likely to pursue STEM. Such an effort is not widening the STEM pipeline – it is simply moving the same students around the system for the sake of institutional prestige.


Finally, states and institutions must do all in their power to resist the desire to keep raising tuition and fees. Easy to say, I know. Yet making Pell and other dollars go further for low-income students is for naught if campuses continually raise the cost of higher education. At some point, we must find a leveling of cost and allow policymakers to make adjustments in aid without the threat that their policies will have little impact in light of tuition hikes.


The national narrative on the need for more college graduates, and more graduates in STEM, is at risk of becoming a story unfulfilled if we do not view higher education as an investment in our future as a nation – and not one that we place on the backs of needy students and families. If STEM education is truly a priority, then there must be in kind investment by keeping financial aid at the forefront of our collective efforts to ensure more students are entering, and what is more, completing STEM degrees.


— Dr. Lorelle L. Espinosa is the director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based independent, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.


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