Echoing earlier calls by President Biden and pointing to high tuition rates, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed continued on Aug. 22 to push for doubling Pell Grant awards that provide financial aid for students pursuing higher education.
“There was a time when the Pell Grant covered over 75 percent of the cost of a public four-year college,” he said. “It’s time to restore the full power of the Pell Grant. We need to double it. It’s time to double down on that success to uplift future generations and ensure they too can afford to pay for college, reach their potential and strengthen our communities and the economy.”
The proposal came at Salve Regina’s Pell Center, where Reed was joined by U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline and U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to mark the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. The key provision of that law, now known as the Pell Grant, has gone on to become one of former U.S. senator and Newport resident Claiborne Pell’s most noted achievements during his time in government.
The grant offers students demonstrating financial need up to $6,895 in assistance to pursue higher education. The money does not have to be paid back.
“[The Pell Grant has] provided much-needed financial assistance to low-income families, unlocking education opportunities and the American Dream for millions of students,” Cicilline said. “They are really the cornerstone and foundation of our student financial aid system, promoting equity and strengthening our communities, our workforce and our country. [The Pell Grant has] created a more equitable America.”
The event included Rhode Island Pell Grant recipients, who spoke of the impact the grant had in opening access to higher education and career opportunities.
“As a person of color who was raised in a low-income neighborhood, the Pell Grant not only helped me cover a good portion of my tuition, but helped ease the financial anxiety my family had,” said Jennifer Santos, a graduate of the University of Rhode Island.
Last year, Reed, Whitehouse and Cicilline co-sponsored the Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act, which would have doubled the awards distributed to students, indexed them for inflation and expanded the assistance to working students and families. In March, Biden proposed doubling awards to $13,000 by 2029. In the 2022-23 award year, Pell Grant awards are slated to increase by $400.
“That’s the biggest dollar increase ever . . . and it’s only $400,” Whitehouse said. “We have a lot of work to do and we’re working hard to double it, index it so we don’t have to keep adjusting it, and to make the grant tax-free. We can do those things and we can restore the Pell Grant to the status it had in people’s lives.”
Reed succeeded Pell after the latter retired from Congress in 1997.
“We share a responsibility for building on Sen. Pell’s legacy,” said Reed. “The Pell Grant is about creating opportunity through post-secondary education. It’s about building the future.”
“We have to double these grants if they’re going to continue to provide the opportunity that Sen. Pell intended they would,” said Cicilline.
Before the Pell Grant was established by law, less than half of American high school graduates enrolled in college. Today, about two-thirds of graduates pursue higher education, and a third of them rely on the grant to cover tuition costs. More than 80 percent of Pell Grant recipients come from families earning less than $40,000 annually, and more than 40 percent of awardees come from families of color.
“That’s why [the Pell Grant is] a powerful tool in our fight to close the racial-wealth gap in this country,” said Cardona. “Investing in Pell is worth every penny and then some.”
Last year, 23,752 Rhode Island students received nearly $97 million in grants, and over six million American students utilized more than $26 billion in Pell Grant funding. Today, the Pell Grant is the largest federal grant program offered by the U.S. Department of Education.
Nationwide, about 34 percent of undergraduate students receive a Pell Grant, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and about 68 percent of the funds go toward paying tuition at public schools. According to Cardona, giving college freshmen an additional $1,000 in funding raised graduation rates by six points, tripled graduates’ early-career earnings and increased federal tax revenue.
“Even the highest-value NASDAQ stock doesn’t have a return on investment like that,” he said. “We have everything to lose and nothing to gain by letting the grant lose its power to transform lives. To those who say we cannot afford to double Pell, I say the opposite is true.”
On the heels of the Salve Regina University event, the Biden administration announced on Aug. 24 the largest amount of federal student loan forgiveness yet, as borrowers making up to $125,000 will see a deduction of $10,000 and Pell Grant recipients will enjoy $20,000 in relief. Biden also extended the pause and interest freeze for federal student loans through December.