Report: Doubling the Pell Grant Could Serve as Precursor to Free College

Related Topics in the Ref Desk: Pell Grant; Cost of Attendance

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

The diminishing purchasing power of the Pell Grant has been well-documented over the years, and President Joe Biden’s recent proposal calling for a $1,400 increase to the grant as part of his recently unveiled infrastructure package proposal could lay the groundwork for a doubling of the maximum award in the future.

Biden called the increase a “down payment” toward his commitment to double the maximum award. And a new report from the center-left think tank Third Way argues that doubling the maximum award will represent a significant down payment toward another progressive priority of making public colleges — both two- and four-year — tuition-free. 

While there is an ongoing and robust debate regarding the best way to increase college access and improve affordability, the report asserts that using the existing federal grant program and doubling Pell will best assist those with the most financial need and move toward making the idea of free college a reality.

NASFAA has urged for doubling the maximum Pell Grant, as its purchasing power has decreased compared to previous decades, noting the benefits to both students and society that will come from such an investment from the federal government.

The report breaks down in detail how the doubled average and maximum Pell Grant awards would cover the average tuition and fees for in-state students at public two-year colleges, public four-year colleges, and the average total cost of attendance for in-state students at public two-year colleges.

The findings detail how many more students who have demonstrated financial need would be able to attend and afford college with a doubling of the maximum Pell Grant. The data used is based on the 2018-19 award year, when the maximum Pell Grant was $6,095 and the average grant award was $4,418.

Doubling the maximum grant from $$6,095 for the 2018-19 award year to more than $12,000 would fully cover the average cost of in-state tuition and fees at public community colleges in all 50 states for students receiving the average Pell Grant or above, the report found — essentially creating tuition-free community college across the country.

Biden’s American Families Plan would make two-year community colleges tuition-free for all, regardless of income, through a federal-state partnership. If this plan comes to fruition, doubling the Pell Grant would still benefit eligible students by allowing them to use the funds on non-tuition expenses such as books, housing and transportation costs, and child care, “meaning that those percentage point increases above 100% of tuition and fee charges still represent aid that can help students persist and complete their degrees.”

Further, doubling the maximum award would fully cover the average total cost of attendance — including room and board, books, supplies, transportation, and additional expenses — for in-state students at public community colleges who live off campus with family in 47 states for students who currently receive the maximum award, and in 41 states for students receiving the average award or more. 

This finding is particularly important considering only about 1% of community college students live on campus. Those who live off campus generally fall into two categories: those living off campus with family and those living off campus, not with family.

Even though students living off campus with family have roughly half the costs of those who do not live with family, the average Pell Grant does not cover their average total cost of attendance in any state, and the maximum grant covers the full cost of attendance in only one state.

If Pell is doubled, recipients of the average grant award or above living at home with family would see their total cost of attendance fully covered in 41 states, and recipients of the maximum grant would be fully covered in 47 states, effectively making community college both tuition- and debt-free for such recipients in most of the country.

Biden’s proposal does not cover the full cost of attendance for students enrolled at community colleges — only tuition. 

For those living off campus and not with family, costs are considerably higher. The report found that even when doubling the maximum award, it would not cover the full cost attendance for such recipients in any state.

For in-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions, doubling the grant would cover the costs in 39 states for students receiving the maximum award and in 35 states for students receiving the average award or above.

Based on 2018-19 figures, the average Pell Grant does not cover the average cost of in-state tuition and required fees in any state, though it's very close to covering the cost of tuition and fees in Florida and Wyoming. For maximum grant recipients, the amount only covers the average cost of tuition and fees at public four-year schools in Florida, Wyoming, and Nevada.

While doubling the average amount for Pell Grant recipients would cover the cost of tuition and fees to attend public four-year schools in 35 states, it leaves a large gap in how far that coverage would stretch, ranging from as much as 237% in Florida down to only 63% in Vermont.

The doubled maximum award would cover tuition and fees in more states, allowing recipients of the maximum grant to attend four-year public institutions tuition-free in 39 states and have at least 90% of average tuition and fees covered in six other states.

Often, proposals for free college or doubling the Pell Grant are presented as mutually exclusive, but the report argues increasing the grant “can work in conjunction with other key affordability policies to target the barriers to retention and attainment posed by a student’s total cost of attendance.”

“Doubling Pell offers a smart, effective, and politically popular way to better support students with the greatest financial need — and it makes a significant down payment toward future conversations around free college,” the report concludes.


Publication Date: 5/19/2021

Daina A | 5/20/2021 2:52:04 PM

Doubling the Pell Grant has nothing to do with Infrastructure. This President and his Administration apparently have no idea how economics works. The first rule of Economics is that nothing FREE.

Kyle R | 5/19/2021 10:58:11 AM

From what I understand, students who attend a proprietary school will not receive an increase in Pell. Way to treat those students like 2nd class citizens Joe.

James C | 5/19/2021 10:7:04 AM

Some states base their state grant/scholarship eligibility formula on how much Pell grant a student is receiving, so more in Pell equals less in state grant eligibility for a lower income student.

James T | 5/19/2021 9:7:33 AM

Doubling Pell, that the great. Does anyone think that colleges will raise their tuition/fees/room and board cost for the students.

In the past any increase in federal financial aid has been offset with an increase in what colleges charge the students. I have already been told that doubling PELL is great and then the colleges can raise their prices as colleges have been operating so lien for so long. Does doubling Pell come with a caveat that colleges can't raise their prices? If not what is the point? I see doubling PELL as a win for the students as long as their is something in place to prevent the colleges from raising their prices, raising the price to go to college defeats the purpose of doubling PELL.

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