Bills Call for Giving Graduate Students Access to Pell Grants

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Two pieces of legislation recently reintroduced are hoping to provide graduate students who received the federal Pell Grant as undergraduates the ability to apply remaining semesters of Pell eligibility towards their graduate degree.

One of the bills, a bipartisan proposal from Reps. Annie McLane Kuster (D-N.H.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Kim Schrier (D-Wash.), and Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), remains similar to its previous version

Students would have had to have received at least one semester of Pell Grant during their undergraduate studies and not have reached their lifetime limit of 12 semesters to be eligible to use the grant for graduate studies.

The proposed legislation received praise from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), which said the passage of the bill would improve access and diversity within graduate education.

“The reintroduction of this legislation highlights a commitment to maximize the Pell Grant program and ensure that individuals with exceptional financial need can pursue higher levels of in-demand education,” CGS President Suzanne T. Ortega said in a statement. “Since the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of financial support is a top concern for prospective graduate students, particularly from underserved backgrounds, so it is paramount that our nation’s investments include expanding access to more students from these communities.”

Under current federal law, students are prohibited from using Pell Grants for their graduate degree, though a few proposed bills, including the College Affordability Act, are seeking to change that.

“In today’s changing economy, many students require training beyond an undergraduate education,” Shrier said in a statement when the bill was first introduced. “If students have not exhausted their undergraduate financial aid, they should be able to put what remains toward a post-secondary professional program.”

The lawmakers note that considering the higher cost of graduate school, allowing students to use their remaining Pell eligibility would deliver considerable savings and benefits. Similarly, as the prevalence of students pursuing graduate degrees grows — particularly considering the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on the workforce — the proposed legislation is seen as modernizing financial aid to meet the changing needs of students.

Another bill, reintroduced by Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), calls for extending students’ lifetime Pell Grant eligibility to 16 semesters and allowing students who received a Pell Grant award as undergraduates to utilize their remaining Pell eligibility for their graduate degrees.

Lawrence’s bill is very similar to that of her House colleagues, though hers does differ in the Pell Grant eligibility cap.

“The rising costs of higher education has made college out of reach for far too many students. For those that do attend, they graduate with debilitating student debt. This must change,” Lawrence said in a statement. “My legislation helps reduce the burden and remove barriers that so many students face in pursuit of higher education and is a great step towards making college more affordable for students in Michigan and across the country.”

The bills are the latest pieces of legislation introduced this session of Congress by lawmakers calling for increased investments to the Pell Grant, the cornerstone of the federal government’s investment in higher education for low-income students.

While the Pell Grant has garnered increased attention this session, it remains unclear whether any of the bills have enough bipartisan support to pass with Democrats holding slim majorities in both chambers of Congress. Alternatively, Democrats could look to include an investment in the Pell Grant program in an upcoming reconciliation package. 

Editor's Note: This article was updated on June 30 at 4:00 p.m. to clarify differences between the two bills. 


Publication Date: 6/30/2021

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