As the 50th Anniversary of the Pell Grant Program Approaches, AAU Joins Campaign to Restore Grants’ Purchasing Power
Nearly 50 years ago, Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-RI) led Congress to create a new federal grant to help more low- and middle-income Americans afford a college education. Later named for its legislative champion, the Pell Grant program has helped millions of Americans earn an undergraduate degree and go on to contribute to our economy, enter public service, and do other great things.
The Pell program’s success in expanding access to higher education rivals that of the GI Bill. Each year, approximately 7 million students receive Pell Grants. Nearly 90% of all Pell dollars go to students with an annual family income below $50,000, and the grants are particularly crucial to helping subsidize the educations of Black (58% of all Black college students are Pell recipients), American Indian/Indigenous (51%), and Hispanic (47%) college students, as well as students who are veterans (39%).
But, as it nears its half-century mark, the Pell program needs a serious boost to restore something approaching its original ability to make college affordable for new generations of Americans. That’s why AAU is proud to join the new #DoublePell campaign.
This campaign seeks to double the current maximum Pell Grant award to $13,000 per year. This figure is crucial, because current Pell maximums do not offer nearly the same purchasing power as they did in the early years of the program. In the mid-1970s, the maximum Pell award covered the full average cost of attending community college, 79% of the cost for a four-year public college or university, and 38% of the cost for a four-year private institution. Combined with additional financial aid from states and the institutions themselves, Pell grants in the program’s early years gave prospective students from low-income households the ability to pursue a higher education with little or no need to go into debt.
But, as state and local investments in higher education have decreased in recent decades, the relative value of a Pell grant has declined precipitously – meaning more students and more families have had to take out loans to afford a college education. In the two decades between 1995 and 2016 alone, the average amount borrowed by Pell Grant recipients increased by 16%.
As America begins to recover from a COVID-19 pandemic that has had disproportionately negative health and economic effects on low-income Americans and communities of color, now is the perfect time to restore the Pell Grant program’s original promise. The campaign features a new website, doublepell.org, that provides students and families with the tools to communicate with Congress, engage on social media, and share personal stories about how Pell Grants have helped them. The campaign is led by the Double Pell Alliance, which includes AAU, other higher education associations, organizations, and advocacy groups committed to doubling the maximum Pell award by the program’s 50th birthday in June 2022.
While Congress is currently considering proposals to increase the Pell maximum by $1,875, that doesn’t go nearly far enough. The campaign website includes a Take Action page, which features a customizable letter that students, families, alumni, and other stakeholders can send to their members of Congress. The page also features shareable social media graphics to amplify the #DoublePell campaign’s messages.
President Biden and members of Congress from both parties have already expressed their support for doubling the maximum Pell award; AAU is proud to lend our voice to the cause. We hope that the faculty, staff, students, alumni, and other supporters of our member universities share the #DoublePell message with all in their spheres of influence. It is long past time to #DoublePell and secure this program’s promise for new generations of Americans.