In State of the Union Address, Biden Highlights Pell Grant Increase as Administration Priority

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Senior Staff Reporter

President Joe Biden delivered his first State of the Union address on Tuesday night, and while the speech covered a wide breadth of issues — ranging from the ongoing impact of the pandemic to the crisis in Ukraine — it also touched on the administration’s domestic priorities, including its higher education agenda.

“Let’s increase Pell Grants and increase our historic support of HBCUs, and invest in what Jill — our First Lady who teaches full-time — calls America’s best-kept secret: community colleges,” Biden said during his remarks.

The speech contained a number of specific policy proposals related to higher education, with the president directly calling on Congress to provide an increase to the maximum Pell Grant award. A White House preview of the speech said Biden would specifically press for a $2,000 increase to the maximum award. Currently, the maximum Pell Grant stands at $6,495, though the amount could change for the 2022-23 award year once Congress finalizes the federal budget. A $2,000 boost would bring the maximum award to $8,495.

The White House framed the proposed higher education investments as a way to remove barriers to good-paying jobs for American workers. With more than 6 million students relying on the Pell Grant program to finance their higher education, the administration called on Congress to better align these funds with the rising costs of college.

During the presidential campaign Biden supported doubling the maximum Pell Grant and congressional Democrats have backed the effort as a part of their Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act.

The administration could also utilize the annual appropriations process to further outline its priorities, with the White House now working on its budget request for fiscal year 2023 spending levels. Through this process and a potential reworking of Biden’s Build Back Better plan that will aim to target inflation and reduce the deficit by making a number of key investments.

NASFAA has continued to call on the administration and Congress to Double the Pell Grant as a way to restore the program’s purchasing power for low- and moderate-income students struggling to meet college costs.

“We are pleased to see the Biden administration’s commitment to increasing funding for this foundational student aid program and urge Congress to take action and include this investment in the federal budget,” said NASFAA President and CEO Justin Draeger. “While this is a welcome step forward, there is still a long way to go to ensure the purchasing power of the Pell Grant is restored for the approximately 6 million low- and moderate-income students who depend on the program to enroll in college each year. Doubling the maximum award would make up for necessary investments in federal student aid that have been pushed off for decades, and targets resources to students with the greatest need. As the  program's 50th anniversary approaches, we applaud this proposal to deliver additional dollars to low-income Pell Grant recipients and urge Congress and President Biden to ensure affordable higher education is accessible to all students by doubling the maximum Pell Grant.”

Biden also used his speech to call on congress to increase funding for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), and minority-serving institutions (MSIs) by expanding on existing institutional aid grants that can be used to strengthen their academic, administrative, and fiscal capabilities, and allow institutions to expand programs for high-demand fields, such as STEM, computer science, nursing, and health care.

All of these frameworks that Biden touted in his speech will now go back to congressional leadership, which will first have to deal with the federal budget.

Currently the annual appropriations cycle is entering a complex juncture in which negotiators still need to work through spending levels for the fiscal year that runs through Sept. 30, 2022. 

Lawmakers are trying to come up with a spending deal before a March 18 deadline, when they will either wrap up spending talks with a massive omnibus package or a short-term deal that will either create a new deadline or simply keep the spending levels agreed to in the previous fiscal year in effect through September 30. 

Typically, at this point in the calendar, the appropriations process would be starting discussions over the next fiscal year which begins Oct. 1, 2022 and runs through Sept. 30, 2023. But future budget talks are in a holding pattern, as the White House has yet to release a budget proposal. Once that framework is unveiled, Congress will begin scheduling hearings to sort through its budgeting agenda.  

Last year Biden used his speech during a  joint session of Congress as an introduction of his American Families Plan, which eventually got tied into the Build Back Better legislation that remains stalled in the Senate and has no pathway forward without significant reworking.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), ranking member of the House Committee on Education and Labor, largely panned the speech and argued that the proposals Biden outlined would do little to improve Americans’ economic well-being.

“The American people deserve far better than the progressive political agenda of this administration that has harmed the entire country,” Foxx said. “Americans deserve more than unmanageable inflation, rising college costs, more centralized health care, and attempts by Democrats to nationalize child care and keep families from choosing the school that is right for their child.”

Reaction to the speech from congressional Democrats was more warmly received, with Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, committing to the White House’s agenda.​​

Stay tuned to Today’s News for more details on how the administration’s legislative agenda will impact higher education.


Publication Date: 3/2/2022

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