Democrats Propose Massive Overhaul To Pell Grant Program

By Brittany Hackett, Communications Staff 
A group of Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday introduced a bill to strengthen the Pell Grant program by increasing funding, expanding eligibility to reach more students, and other significant changes.
The bicameral Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act – sponsored by Sens. Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI) and Patty Murray (D-WA) and Reps. Susan Davis (D-CA) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) – is part of a legislative campaign led by House Democrats aimed at improving college access, affordability, and completion. 
“Earning a college degree is the key to opportunity for so many low-income students, but far too many students must take on massive amounts of debt just to get the skills and education they need to get a good job with a decent living,” Murray said in a statement. “I am proud to introduce this legislation to expand the Pell Grant program and give the eight million students currently receiving Pell Grants some additional needed stability and security.”
Among its numerous provisions, the bill would immediately provide a $500 increase to the maximum Pell Grant and would increase the value of the grant over time by permanently indexing it to inflation. Currently, the maximum Pell Grant for award year 2017-18 stands at $5,920 and will remain fixed at that level in fiscal year (FY) 2018 with no future inflationary increases. Through the bill, the Pell Grant would also be moved out of the annual discretionary appropriations process and into the mandatory funding process, which would ensure that the grants would be fully funded moving forward, rather than subject to the annual appropriations process s. 
The bill would also extend lifetime Pell eligibility from the current 12 semesters to 14 semesters, and would enact a 35 percent increase to the income protection allowance (IPA) for working students. The bill would fully reverse the 2011 cuts to the income threshold at which students receive a zero-dollar expected family contribution (EFC). The threshold would revert from $25,000 to $34,000 and would ensure Pell access for the poorest students. 
The Iraq & Afghanistan Service Grant would also be moved into the Pell Grant program, safeguarding it from sequester cuts. The move, according to a one-pager on the bill, would safeguard IASG recipients from more than $400 annually in sequester cuts. 
The bill proposes several changes to Pell Grant eligibility, including:
  • Reinstating eligibility for defrauded students;
  • Extending eligibility to undocumented students;
  • Restoring eligibility for incarcerated individuals;
  • Reinstating eligibility for students with drug-related offenses, and eliminating drug questions on the FAFSA; and
  • Extending eligibility to students enrolled in short-term job training for career pathway programs that lead to in-demand, industry-recognized credentials.
Many of the provisions included in the bill are aimed at combating the $3.9 billion in cuts to the Pell Grant program included in President Donald Trump’s FY 2018 budget proposal. Trump’s “raid” on the Pell Grant “would severely destabilize the funding of this critical grant program, and potentially lead to slashing award levels or cutting many students out of the program entirely,” according to a fact sheet on the bill. “Instead, the Pell Grant program must continue to be reliable source of funding for aspiring students, their families, and future generations.” 
The bill received positive reception from higher education groups, including NASFAA.
"We are encouraged by this bicameral bill's commitment to strengthening the Pell Grant program, both fiscally and by expanding it's reach to more of our country's neediest students,” NASFAA President Justin Draeger said.
The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) called the bill “a much-needed modernization of the Pell Grant program for the 21st century. … This landmark legislation easily qualifies as the single most significant enhancement to Pell Grants since their inception more than four decades ago.”
The National College Access Network (NCAN) said in a statement that it is “encouraged that congressional Democrats are advancing the conversation on the importance of Pell Grants for today’s students. Congress must start this conversation now so that future students -- a majority of whom will be students of color by 2020 -- are still able to rely on Pell Grants as part of their college affordability program.” 
"Congress just cut $1.3 [billion] from Pell Grants for FY2017, and the president and House Republicans are proposing to cut billions more in FY2018. In stark contrast, these legislators are providing the leadership we need for students and families struggling to pay for college," The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) said in a statement. "We thank Representatives Davis and Scott, and Senators Hirono and Murray for their longstanding and continued leadership on college affordability, and Pell Grants specifically. ... As college costs and student debt continue to rise, we urge Congress and the Administration to work together on making the Pell Grant program, the cornerstone of federal financial aid, work even better for America’s students and the American economy rather than debating how to cut it." 



Publication Date: 5/16/2017

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