Celebrating 50 years of Pell Grant aid

Higher education stakeholders this month celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Pell Grant, the largest grant program offered by the Department of Education. The need-based federal financial aid program for low-income students was originally known as the Basic Education Opportunity Grant, and was renamed in 1980 after the chief sponsor of the program and former Rhode Island U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell.

Fifty years since its implementation, the Pell Grant program has supported 80 million students, Forbes reports. Nearly 60% of Black college students and almost half of Native American and Latinx students are Pell Grant recipients. In 2022, nearly seven million students received a Pell Grant, according to the National College Attainment Network.

Related: Pell Grants: Budget delay could disrupt aid offers; report shows $3.75B in unclaimed aid >

Research affirms the grants’ positive impact. A study from the UpJohn Institute, for instance, finds that need-based aid like Pell Grants targeting low-income students help students to graduate sooner and earn more, enabling low-income families to become upwardly mobile.

Outpaced by college costs

As college costs rise, the Pell Grant has lost much of its purchasing power. In the 2019-20 academic year, the average undergraduate’s Pell grant totaled $4,491, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Overall, in the last 50 years, the maximum grant went from covering nearly 80 percent of the cost of a four-year college degree to less than 30 percent. 

Related: Average Pell Grant recipient able to afford few 4-year public colleges >

Advocates have begun a #DoublePell national campaign calling for increased federal funding to double the maximum Pell Grant to $13,000. In March, the Biden Administration signed the largest increase to Pell Grants in more than a decade, bringing the maximum award to $6,895 for the 2022-23 academic year. The administration has also proposed additional increases for the 2023-24 academic year and to double the maximum Pell Grant by 2029.

Expanding Pell Grants for prison education

Pell Grants’ impact is poised for further expansion in the 2023-24 academic year, when  incarcerated students will again have access, NPR reports. The omnibus spending and stimulus package signed at the end of 2020 restored access to Pell Grants for incarcerated students and those convicted of drug-related offenses, putting an end to a 26-year-long ban.

After the 1994 crime bill barred incarcerated people with criminal offenses from Pell Grant eligibility, advocates had pushed to reinstate eligibility.

In 2015, the Obama Administration launched the Second Chance Pell Experiment, a program that has been expanded three times in the last four years, according to Higher Ed Dive.

With the 2023 expansion, the Pell Grant program is expected to reach an estimated 463,000 incarcerated people, according to research from the Vera Institute and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.

Related: Pell Grant to Georgetown Prisons and Justice Initiative will expand programs >

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