A House hearing Thursday focusing on Pell grants yielded mostly well-known arguments from both sides of the aisle: Democrats contended that an increase to the maximum award — in particular, doubling it — is long overdue in order to help students keep up with rising college expenses and inflation. Republicans, meanwhile, countered that increasing the grant amount does not address the issue of increasing college costs and would encourage institutions to continue to “bloat” their prices and expenses unrelated to academics.
But the hearing held by the Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee did show that most of its members support different paths to higher education, including associate degrees and technical training. It also illustrated the complexities that many college students face in paying for higher education.
One of the witnesses testifying at the virtual hearing was Darney Suriel, a first-generation Dominican immigrant and college student who initially attended a public four-year university in New York before moving to community college after her first year, and then transferring to another four-year institution after earning her associate degree. Tuition and fees don’t include the total cost of attending college, she told the panel. Other expenses, such as books, transportation, housing, food and childcare, can easily derail a student.
“There were days when I missed my class because I could not afford a MetroCard,” said Suriel, who used public transportation to get to the Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York City.
To cover her overall expenses — which include helping her mother take care of two siblings with disabilities — Suriel took on a part-time job of nearly 30 hours a week. That made balancing a full-time course load difficult. Doubling the Pell award, as proposed by President Joe Biden and several congressional Democrats, would allow her to focus on her academics, she said.
“As I prepare to go back to in-person learning next month, I worry that my Pell Grant will not be enough to cover my tuition, let alone the additional costs of being a commuter student,” Suriel said.
Suriel also noted that a larger award would help students who take a nontraditional higher education route without burning through their eligibility. She is concerned she may not qualify for Pell as she pursues her baccalaureate. She added that it’s not unusual for many students now to complete their bachelor’s degree in six years rather than four.
A stronger pipeline
Several witnesses cited how critical it is for colleges to provide wraparound services to students, noting they are proven to help students navigate the system, stay in school and complete their credential.
Rep. Kathy Manning (D-North Carolina) noted the importance of helping community college students who are transferring to a four-year college by offering wraparound services that include counseling and tutoring.
Robert Jones, chancellor of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UI), said his university is very engaged with five community colleges in the state and is working to strengthen its articulation agreements and transfer pathways with them. He said he is aware of the role that community colleges play in higher education and at UI, which has about 1,000 to 1,500 community college students transfer in each year.
Jones also noted that when he previously served as president of the University of Albany in New York, 48% of the students who graduated there started a community college.
UI is focused on providing the same wraparound services to transfer students and making them aware of various financial aid offered through the state and college. For example, qualifying transfer students are eligible for Illinois Commit, through which they can receive free tuition and fees for up to three years.
In regards to the claim that colleges increase tuition when Congress increases student aid, Jones said that critics ignore the challenges public higher education institutions face when states shrink their funding. UI has held tuition steady for six of seven years while the state cut funding for higher ed, he said. He credits the university’s ability to leverage Pell grants with institutional resources. On average, UI students graduate with about $24,000 in student debt.
“I think it speaks against some of the narrative about a direct link between Pell and the driving cost of tuition,” Jones said.