Celebrating 40 Years of College Access through Pell

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The Higher Education Act of 1972 was signed into law 40 years ago this week. The groundbreaking legislation included an amendment by Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) creating Educational Opportunity Grants to help low-income students afford higher education. Over the decades, Pell Grants, as they’re now called, have helped millions of low- and moderate-income students obtain a college education. Sen. Pell fought hard to create the program because he understood that “the strength of the United States is not the gold at Fort Knox or the weapons of mass destruction that we have, but the sum total of the education and the character of our people.”

In the last year alone, nearly 10 million students accessed Pell Grants, a crucial stepping stone to the middle class. Yet, the grants’ purchasing power has declined significantly. What used to cover nearly the entire cost of attending an in-state public university now covers only about one-third. Nonetheless, the grants still offer students who might otherwise have skipped college a springboard to greatness. New Jersey Rep. Rob Andrews and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio are former Pell recipients as is Secretary Hilda Solis, the first in her family to go college and the first Latina to lead the Department of Labor.

Beyond these famous Pell alumni, the real value of the program comes from the daily contributions made by millions of other past Pell recipients who will never appear on Meet the Press. They inspire students like Ashley, who recently used Pell to help earn a degree in molecular and cell biology and to jumpstart a career in biotech. Or Marielena, a pre-med student at Mount Holyoke. Or Martine, who is studying public policy at Cornell. Pell has made the difference for these students, and in return, they will make a difference for the American economy in the decades to come.

Unfortunately, Pell’s 40th anniversary occurs in the midst of economic uncertainty. Our economy has yet to recover fully from the recent recession and Congress continues to struggle with the deficit. The stress has caused some to question whether Pell should continue. As we search for solutions to our economic woes, it is important to remember that the value of Pell Grants far outweighs their costs:

  • Three-quarters of all Pell recipients in 2010-11 had family incomes of $30,000 or less a year. These are students with great financial need.
  • With modest awards of, at most, $5,550, Pell Grant costs are expected to stay nearly flat over the next decade, even as the cost of college continues to rise.

Pell Grants remove obstacles and make the enormous task of paying for school a little bit easier for low-income students. For their sake and that of our nation’s economic future, we must ensure that Pell Grants continue to help students like Rob, Marco, Hilda, Ashley, Marielena, and Martine.

— Jim Davy