Former ED secretary: Increase Pell, expand eligibility

John B. King, Jr., president and CEO of The Education Trust and a former education secretary, testifies virtually on Monday during a House Education and Labor Committee hearing. (Image: Screenshot during hearing)

During a four-hour House committee hearing Monday on widened racial inequities in education, health and the workforce during the pandemic, a former U.S. education secretary called on lawmakers to increase the Pell Grant maximum and expand eligibility for the grants to incarcerated and undocumented students. 

John B. King, Jr., president and CEO of The Education Trust and a former education secretary in the Obama administration, towed the Democratic line before the House Education and Labor Committee in recommending the extension of student loan relief and additional targeted student debt forgiveness, increasing investments in minority-serving institutions and historically black colleges and universities, and reigning in predatory for-profit institutions. He also called to continue simplifying the federal student aid application process.

“Implementing those policies would increase enrollment and limit debt for students of color,” King said.

Little about community colleges

The committee’s discussion about education focused mainly on disparities in K-12, though it did touch on benefits to colleges in the House Democrat’s proposed HEROES Act, the unfairness of legacy admissions among highly selective universities, and how some higher education institutions are ditching standardized tests for fall admissions. Community colleges were mentioned twice in passing, once when King said that increased funding and counseling has helped boost graduation rates at community colleges.

Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pennsylvania) touched on the importance of career and technical education in preparing students for available jobs, and Rep. Mark Takano (D-California) said that he supports alternatives that help low-income and underrepresented students access college, noting concurrent enrollment programs such as early college high schools.

“Dual enrollment we know from large scale studies can increase the likelihood that students graduate from high school and go on to college. So we ought to invest in dual enrollment,” King responded. “The challenge is the districts that need those dual-enrollment programs the most are the ones with the least resources.”

More in written testimony

King included more recommendations in his written testimony. For instance, he said Congress should include the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act in its next pandemic response package, which would direct $1 billion to institutions that primarily serve students of color and low-income students so they can access the internet at home for coursework.

Congress also should provide dedicated funds to support student success and completion, according to King. The funding would support students’ academic and social needs affected by the crisis, such as mental health services and supplemental academic support, he said.

“This could take the form of bridge programs, co-requisite instruction, and/or supplemental academic support for Pell-eligible students to make up for lost learning and increase the number of available advisers and counselors,” King said.

Congress could also invest in evidence-based policies to improve student success and close racial equity gaps, King said, citing studies that support wraparound support models like the City University New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Program (ASAP). In order to scale such models, he encouraged Congress to approve the Community College Student Success Act, which would provide grants to community colleges to scale ASAP-type programs.

In addition to expanding ASAP, there are promising practices around emergency student aid and microgrants that deserve further study, and Congress should support the development of these practices as well, King said. He added that lawmakers could make it easier for college students to enroll in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by eliminating the 20-hour work requirement that prevents thousands of students from accessing its benefits.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.