Boosting the purchasing power of the Pell

A bill introduced this week by Senate and House Democrats would cover a lot of ground in expanding Pell grants, from shifting to mandatory funding for the program and indexing grant increases to inflation, to restoring eligibility for inmates and drug offenders.

Supporters of the proposed Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act noted that Pell grants are critical to helping many students afford college, but the rising costs of a postsecondary education have chipped away at the grants’ purchasing power. A fact sheet on the bill took a shot at the Trump administration for proposing to nix $3.9 billion from the Pell program surplus instead of supporting it to help more students go to college.

“Undermining the Pell Grant will push college even further out of reach for low-income students and drive many students deeper into debt,” according to the fact sheet.

The bill includes quite a list of wishes, some of which may garner bipartisan support, and some not. Among them would be to tag an immediate $500 increase to the Pell maximum of $5,920 (for 2017-18) and permanently index increases to inflation. It also would make funding for Pell mandatory instead of discretionary.

“Mandatory funding will ensure that the Pell Grant program is stable even during tough economic times,” the fact sheet said, ensuring that students in need could tap grants during recessions,  when enrollments typically spike at community colleges as workers return to college to update skills or train for new jobs.

Extending eligibility

The bill would also restore or permit Pell eligibility for defrauded students, DREAMers (undocumented students who came to the U.S. as children), incarcerated individuals and students with drug-related offenses.

In addition, the bill would allow using the grants for qualifying short-term job training programs and reduce the so-called “work penalty” for working students, which counts income against student aid eligibility. Democrats this week introduced another bill, the Working Students Act, which also would increase the amount working students can earn without that income counting against them in accessing need-based federal financial aid, including Pell grants.

The Pell bill would also extend eligibility from the current 12 semesters to 14.

“Too many students exhaust their Pell Grant eligibility before they are able to complete their program, often because their credits didn’t transfer, they had to care for family members, or even when they attended fraudulent institutions,” according to the fact sheet.

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