Democrats underscored their desire to further invest in the federal Pell Grant program during an House Education and Labor Committee hearing on Thursday.
The Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee’s hearing focused on finding ways to help more students from low-income families enroll in college and successfully complete their degrees, with Democratic members often stressing the importance of increasing the maximum Pell Grant award considering the diminished purchasing power of the federal aid.
“For decades, Pell Grants and public institutions have been critical to helping students from low-income backgrounds enroll in college and reach their full potential,” Committee Chairman Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) said in his opening statement. “However, growing research reveals that there are still too many public institutions with student bodies that do not reflect the communities they were established to serve.”
While Democrats were aligned on their desire to increase — if not double — the maximum Pell Grant award, Republicans pushed back, pointing to administrative bloat and extravagant spending on amenities to attract students as the root cause behind tuition increases that have led to the diminishment of the Pell Grant.
Noting the increase in actual dollars of the maximum Pell Grant between 1997 to 2017, ranking member Rep. Greg Murphy (R-N.C.) argued the federal government should reign in the spending of institutions, not increase spending on the Pell Grant.
"Additional dollars allocated to poor students will eventually wind up captured by institutions. Congress wanted to subsidize students but wound up subsidizing institutions. Schools are taking advantage of the taxpayers' charity,” Murphy said.
Scott and Democrats saw it differently, asserting that the root causes behind barriers to degree attainment for students, particularly low-income students, are state disinvestment that leads public institutions to rely on revenue generated from wealthy, out-of-state students while also raising tuition and saddling students and families with the added cost.
Notably, Democrats in both the House and Senate have recently introduced legislation that would incrementally double the maximum Pell Grant award over a five-year period and extend eligibility to those enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, commonly known as “Dreamers.”
Proposals to double the Pell Grant lack support from Republicans at the moment, though President Joe Biden made doubling the key financial aid award for low-income students a campaign pledge and has included an increase to the grant in his budget request.
Several Pell Grant recipients spoke at the hearing where they detailed their experiences in higher education, with each of them stating they would not have been able to attend an institution of higher education without receiving the grant.
Beyond just investing in the grant program, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) noted the importance of providing recipients wraparound services and adding semesters of eligibility for recipients if their degree pursuit takes longer as they work while going to school.
Justin Ortagus, an associate professor of higher education administration & policy and director of the University of Florida’s Institute of Higher Education, spoke at the hearing Thursday as an expert witness and noted that studies show more aid for students directly leads to higher graduation rates.
“When you look at the empirical literature I referenced about the benefits of increasing need-based aid in conjunction with the Pell Grant, … [you’ll find] really convincing and compelling outcomes in relation to not only the academic outcomes but also the estimation in the analysis that it can pay for itself within 10 years,” he said.
Robert Jones, chancellor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, described the work that continues on campus once a Pell Grant recipient is enrolled.
“Once we provide the financial packages that allow them to enroll, the work cannot stop there,” Jones said. “A lot of the things that occurred, you know, kind of behind the scenes if you will, that make sure that these students are academically successful, and that if they find themselves having challenges, whether it's academically or financially, those challenges can be addressed.”
Jones also spoke to the various pathways available for low-income students and students from underrepresented groups, touting community college as a viable option for many to attend a higher education institution.
Much like a hearing of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on Economic Policy held earlier this week, there was some agreement that continued investment in the Pell Grant and federal student aid in general would be for naught without reform to the higher education landscape as a whole that has led to the increase in tuition and subsequent debt loads.
“Persistent barriers to education still exist for underserved students. This is why we need bold legislative solutions to lower the cost of college and support student success,” Scott concluded, touting his legislation to double the Pell Grant.
NASFAA, along with the other members of the Double Pell Alliance — a coalition of higher education associations, organizations, and advocacy groups — is currently engaged in a national campaign to double the maximum annual Pell Grant to $13,000. The campaign website, doublepell.org, provides students and families with a form to use to communicate with Congress about the importance of doubling Pell, as well as tools to engage on social media and share personal stories about how the Pell Grant has helped them. NASFAA members are encouraged to help promote the campaign on social media platforms using #DoublePell and to encourage students to head to the website to take action.
Publication Date: 7/29/2021