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In 1972, Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) set out to reform parts of the 1965 Higher Education Act. What emerged was the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, later renamed the federal Pell Grant.
Forty years later, the Pell Grant program is one of the largest programs administered by the U.S. Department of Education, serving to help millions of Americans pursue a higher education.
“It’s absolutely indispensable,” said Félix Matos Rodríguez, president of Hostos Community College (HCC), a City University of New York college.
Matos Rodríguez will speak at a Sept. 7 event celebrating and reflecting on 40 years of Pell grants. The event is hosted by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education in partnership with the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the College Board.
From small start to huge impact
Pell is fundamental to making college accessible to low-income students, Matos Rodríguez said.
“Any student with the talent, desire and drive should be able to pursue higher education,” Pell often said.
Of the 7,000 students attending HCC, about 5,000 benefit from Pell grants, according to 2011 data.
Pell Grant recipients share their stories
Nationally, 9.6 million students benefited from Pell grants in 2010. That’s a drastic increase from Pell’s first year, when 176,000 students received the grants. The program more than doubled in size between 2008 and 2012, due to congressional changes to expand the program. The change coincided with a downturn in the U.S. economy, and the program has during this time helped many students who might not otherwise afford college pursue a higher education.
In 40 years, more than 60 million U.S. citizens have been afforded the “opportunity to reach their higher education dreams and constitute the educated human capital,” said Chandra Taylor Smith, vice president of research and director of the Pell Institute.
The award maximum has grown from $1,400 to $5,550. It’s slated to increase to $5,635 for the next award year. In total, the program represents nearly a third of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget. Of the nearly $34 billion in Pell Grant expenditures for 2011–2012, about a third went to public two-year institutions.
The cost is high, but “without the Pell grants there would be an unfathomable economic, racial, social and educational stratification between those with postsecondary educations and those without in this country,” Taylor Smith said.
While more students than ever are benefiting from Pell grants, the swelling program has become a target for cuts at a time when lawmakers look for places to trim federal spending. Last year, the year-round Pell Grant was eliminated, contributing to a decline in 2012 summer enrollments at some colleges. Ability-to-benefit students—those without a high school diploma or a GED—are also no longer eligible to receive Pell funds.
In addition, the time period for eligible students to tap a Pell Grant has been reduced from 18 full-time equivalent semesters to 12.
Free AACC research brief: Promoting Educational Opportunity: The Pell Grant Program at Community Colleges
That change will hurt students at HCC, as it doesn’t take into account time spent in developmental classes, said Matos Rodríguez, noting that HCC students become especially “vulnerable” if they transfer to a four-year college.
Matos Rodríguez also worries that investments in other government programs, such as tax breaks for families with children in college, may endanger funds for Pell grants. Those tax breaks, unlike Pell grants, aren’t a “deal breaker” in making sure someone attends and completes college.
“If we have a limited pool of federal dollars, we should put them into the Pell program,” he said.
It all comes back to the students
Though Pell Grant funding is often a topic of debate in Congress, Matos Rodríguez said there’s no debating the impact the program has had on his students and on the country. Without an education, citizens will “end up costing us more in the future,” he said.
For many students, Pell grants are a key to completion, according to Rod Risley, executive director of Phi Theta Kappa.
“Pell Grants are as much about empowering student success as they are providing access to higher education,” Risley said.
Proponents of the grants stress that such access to education is vital to the social and economic stability of the country, something frequently noted by Pell, who died in 2009.
“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,” Pell said.
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges