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Doubling the Pell Grant to Promote Access to Opportunity, Higher Ed

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ victory signals a crucial moment for enhanced access to higher education that could, given their commitment to “Doubling the Pell Grant,” promote a success model as well. One of the points to be emphasized is that the goal of college access has force and plausibility as an aim of social policy only insofar as colleges and universities function as effective means for delivering what they promise to deliver. And, while education has a number of legitimate goals, among the most central are promoting cognitive and socio-emotional development, allowing students to attain general knowledge and skills, and helping students become desirable from the perspective of employers. For the latter, they must graduate. What follows from these considerations, then, is that whatever form access strategies assume, college campuses need to adopt corresponding strategies that meet the needs of the students they choose to enroll.

As the Biden-Harris administration prepares to enter office with this new plan and as state budgets anticipate lower than expected revenues given the COVID-19 pandemic, I think it is critically important to put the higher education discussion in some perspective before it gets too far afield. Some seem to be promoting “free college” at the expense of the independent colleges and universities, a sector that has performed quite well in New York and beyond in advancing social mobility.

Promoting social mobility and equal access to opportunities must center on underserved and low-income students. This starts with doubling the Pell Grant, which Biden’s plan includes, rather than a blanket “free college” policy for public institutions. Our democracy requires it.

Dr. Miguel Martinez-SaenzDr. Miguel Martinez-Saenz

In New York, there are approximately 1.2 million students enrolled in higher educational institutions across the state. Approximately 500,000 of these students are enrolled in independent colleges and universities. And, even as we recognize that the public universities in New York, not without exceptions, are appropriately celebrated for promoting social mobility in some very significant ways, we cannot overlook the role independent colleges/universities play in creating transformative learning environments that significantly promote social mobility.

Independent colleges and universities award 60% of all graduate degrees and 74% of all graduate degrees in the state. Independent colleges and universities award approximately $6 billion in financial aid while only taking in approximately $5.8 billion in revenue. Of the aid awarded at independent colleges/universities, 89% is self-funded with approximately 11% coming from Federal and State sources. 40% of all African American and Latinx students enroll in an independent college. Notably, 12 independent colleges in New York are designated Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI) and 21 are emerging HSIs.

As for success rates, 60% of students enrolled in the independent sector graduate within four years and 72% of students enrolled in the independent sector graduate within six years. As engines of growth, independent colleges/universities generate more than $85 billion dollars in economic activity, support more than 400,000 jobs and spend more than $2 billion per year on construction. Approximately 4% of the New York higher education budget goes to the independent sector yet the sector produces 59% of all degrees granted in the state.

The solution should not be to eliminate or compromise the independent sector, especially those in the sector that have been serving the underserved since their inception, but to provide incentives for educational institutions to collaborate to ensure that all New Yorkers (and all citizens) have a choice set that enables them to achieve their dreams.

The idea that making college “free” will ensure that underserved students will be better off is flawed. (Consider the Hope Scholarship Program in Georgia and the longitudinal data associated with that program.)

First, instead of (unintentionally) dismantling a sector that has been, in part, successful at promoting social mobility and has been an engine of economic growth and stability, we should strive to preserve it even as we direct it to ensure it promotes a public good.

Second, instead of expecting CUNY/SUNY and other public universities to expand their capacity, we should fund them at a level that will permit them to continue to focus on promoting quality over quantity. Adequately funding our public colleges and universities is critical.

Third, instead of suggesting that either we commit to public education or we adopt a narrow “private good” view of higher education, we should recognize that a solution requires us to think creatively and collectively across existing sectors.

Doubling the Pell Grant for low-income students and enhancing programs that support the underserved, including AfricanAmerican, Latinx students, first-generation college students, students with disabilities, veterans, formerly incarcerated students and more, is critical to move the needle on social mobility.

The Federal Government could establish a database of eligible colleges by identifying thresholds for participation in the “Doubling Pell Grant Initiative:” learning environments that are representative of the population in their region, a student body with at least 30% Pell Eligible students, graduation rates for Pell Eligible students that exceed the national average, and elimination of graduation gaps.

This approach should appeal to “free college” advocates and “school choice” advocates alike. Giving students and families the ability to choose an educational experience that fits them all while recognizing that we must avoid saddling students with large debt burdens will go a long way to ensuring we promote an educational model that our democracy requires.

Dr. Miguel Martinez-Saenz is president of St. Francis College in Brooklyn, New York.

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