Pell Turns 50: Federal Leaders Push for Increasing Student Aid

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Managing Editor

Higher Education advocates convened on Capitol Hill Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of the Pell Grant program, with federal leaders redoubling their efforts to advocate for increasing the annual investment in the program.

The conversation was convened by The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), which gathered congressional leaders, advocates, and students to discuss the importance of expanding access to higher education and ensuring efforts are made to increase college affordability.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who serves on the appropriations committee, discussed the annual spending process and how he’s working to increase the annual maximum grant in tandem with more affordability measures to help ensure that higher education remains accessible for current and future students.

“We have to find more ways to make college enrollment more affordable,” Reed said. “The Pell Grant remains the cornerstone of need-based aid, but it hasn’t kept up with the rising costs of college.”

Reed called for restoring the purchasing power of the Pell Grant and said the maximum grant award needs to be doubled in order to meet the current needs.

NASFAA in June 2021 published an issue brief calling on Congress to double the Pell Grant maximum award to $13,000 to restore its purchasing power for low- and moderate-income students struggling to meet college costs. The brief also provides a detailed analysis as to how doubling the Pell Grant would make up for necessary investments in federal student aid that have been pushed off for decades.

“Just 20 years ago, the maximum Pell Grant covered nearly 100% of students’ tuition and fees at public institutions, but its purchasing power has drastically plummeted in recent years, declining more than one-third at public institutions,” NASFAA President Justin Draeger said in a statement marking the program’s 50th anniversary. “We applaud steps taken to increase the maximum award, but more will be needed if we are to hold true to the promise that no qualified student be denied access to a quality postsecondary education.”

During the conversation, Michelle Asha Cooper, acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education & deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs at the Department of Education (ED), highlighted commitments to double the Pell Grant.

Cooper reiterated the White House’s budget priorities for fiscal year 2023, impacting award year 2023-24, that seek to continue with increases to the Pell Grant with the goal of doubling the maximum award by 2029.

In addition to these investments, Reed also underscored the importance of institutions having skin in the game, saying schools needed to be held more accountable for poor outcomes. He specifically called for more focus on student loan default rates to ensure schools are properly preparing students for their careers.

The discussion also incorporated the experiences of recent graduates and current college students who have received Pell Grants. These student experiences highlighted the ways in which funding for higher education has not kept up with growing costs and detailed how despite working throughout their postsecondary education, making ends meet was trying, especially amid the ongoing pandemic.

The student panel warned leaders that incoming students will be severely impacted by the pandemic in ways the previous classes have not had to contend with. These incoming students, having completed high school in a virtual landscape, will not only have to adjust to college academics, but also return to in-person classes. In addition, these students will need to continue to deal with the Pell Grant’s loss of purchasing power that has made public institutions less affordable.

The discussion also underscored the stark realities of continually delaying investments in the Pell Grant. Recent students said that if  the Pell Grant had maintained its purchasing power over the years, that they would not have needed to take out loans, could have lived on campus, and might have been able to more fully engage in their programs.


Publication Date: 6/23/2022

Pat H | 6/23/2022 12:13:28 PM

Actually remember Senator Pell talking to us about his proposal at a MASFAA Conference, He was from a very wealthy family in Newport, Rhode Island and felt that everyone should have the same chance to go to college as he did. He was very inspiring!

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