Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, a nonprofit membership group that advocates for effective higher education policy, writes in the piece below that President Biden can and should move quickly to fix the problem by doubling the maximum Pell grant.
Mitchell challenges policymakers to “be honest about where we are” in terms of helping increase college access, and he warns that “we risk squandering several decades of progress in providing opportunity to low-income and minority learners at the precise moment we must recommit to equity and justice for all.”
By Ted Mitchell
In the shadow of the overlapping economic and health crises and a long overdue national reckoning over racial injustice, President Biden’s campaign platform made a strong and clear commitment to “build back better” through investment in the nation’s infrastructure and our country’s current and future workforce.
Across higher education, we are committed not just to building back to where we were, but building back better and stronger, providing greater access to high quality education to all Americans, be they first time college goers or adult learners eager for retraining and a leg up in the job market.
But we must be honest about where we are. Enrollment among first-time college students is down, especially in community colleges that have traditionally been the first rung on the ladder of intergenerational mobility. Moreover, enrollment rates for first generation, low-income, minority students, and Dreamers have slumped across the board.
What this means is that we risk squandering several decades of progress in providing opportunity to low-income and minority learners at the precise moment we must recommit to equity and justice for all.
First and foremost, we must bolster the opportunities for students to access and complete higher education. And the surest and quickest public policy move we can make to begin meeting that goal is by pursuing President Biden’s proposal to double the maximum Pell Grant, the federal higher education financial aid program for low-income students, to $12,990.
Taking up and passing that proposal ought to be one of the very first things the new Congress comes together on to accomplish, and it should not require the vice president to cast a tie-breaking vote in the 50-50 Senate.
The Pell Grant program is that rare policy beast that enjoys wide bipartisan support. It is a voucher program, meaning the grants go directly to students, which appeals to Republicans, and the funds go to low-income students, which means Democrats support it.
This is an existing and well-run program. That means that as soon as Congress doubles the grants the additional money is in the hands of students almost immediately. My organization, the American Council on Education, has a number of ideas for ways to increase access to higher education. But the one initiative that we believe will do the most good the most quickly is doubling the maximum Pell Grant.
Putting more money into the Pell program means providing crucial additional resources to students and families whose ability to pay for college has been compromised by economic dislocation, falling wages, and lost jobs. Pell Grants are the foundation of federal student aid and, in combination with other critical programs, represent the clearest path to making college affordability a reality for millions of current and aspiring postsecondary students.
Of course, doubling the maximum Pell Grant will increase federal costs, though how much more depends on how the proposal is converted into legislative reality. But this is a public policy bargain that would produce an enormous return on investment.
There is a potential catch that needs to be addressed: such a massive increase in federal subsidy spending could lead to states spending less on higher education.
Last year, state governments spent about $65 billion to help underwrite operating costs at 2-year and 4-year public and private colleges and universities. Some local governments also help finance public colleges. Needless to say, the pandemic will severely constrain near-term state and local government budgets.
We expect higher education to bear the brunt of this impact. For decades states have transferred the burden of balancing their budgets to college students and their parents by increasing tuition. After all, among the principal sectors of state support — health care, public safety and education (largely K-12) — higher education is the only one with paying customers.
Consequently, the Biden Pell Grant plan must be coupled with safeguards designed to ensure that states continue their general support for public institutions of higher education at current levels. In short, the expanded Pell Grant should be available only to students attending colleges in states that have maintained their commitments to higher education funding.
We also know that more investment in Pell Grants must be paired with accountability and transparency measures for institutions. The vast majority of colleges and universities are doing an excellent job at meeting students where they are and helping them achieve their educational goals. But some schools should be doing better and we fully expect and embrace the need for more accountability to go along with more Pell funding.
The bottom line for the incoming administration and new Congress: For anyone who fervently believes in the primacy of equal access to a college education and is dismayed by how quickly the pandemic has cut into the painstaking progress made toward that goal over the past several decades, there is no quicker or more effective way to make higher education more attainable for millions of Americans than doubling the maximum Pell Grant.