As Pell Grants Turn 50, It’s Time for Change 

By J Geiman 

In 1972, the second reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act (HEA) created the program we now know as the Pell Grant. It was the product of efforts by both policymakers and lobbyists, including its namesake Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI), as well as the late Lois Dickson Rice–a daughter of working-class Jamaican immigrants who earned the moniker “the mother of Pell” for her contributions to the program. Decades of expansions have made Pell a cornerstone of the federal student aid system and a vital support for students with lower incomes. 

Nevertheless, much has changed since 1972, including our economy, the demands of our workforce, and the demographics of our postsecondary student population. As we celebrate 50 years of Pell, we are at a critical moment to ensure the program meets these changing needs now—and in the decades to come. Here are three of CLASP’s key recommendations for the future of the program: 

1. Double the award amount and index the grant to inflation.

When Pell was created, the traditional college student was young, financially dependent on their parents, and attending school full time. In fact, the definition of an “independent student”—one who is 24 years or older, caring for dependents, homeless or in foster care, or otherwise financially independent—was not introduced into the HEA until 1986.  

Today, however, independent students make up the majority of all U.S. college students. These students face additional financial barriers, being responsible not only for educational expenses but basic needs for themselves and dependents including housing, food, transportation, and child care—which have dramatically increased in price while wages have stagnated. At the same time, independent students may face a higher opportunity cost for pursuing a degree, often needing to cut work hours to make time for classes and coursework. 

Policymakers have made incremental increases to the Pell Grant over the years, but the current maximum award amount of $6,895 does little to address the rising total cost of higher education for this new college majority. Doubling the Pell award as proposed in President Biden’s FY23 budget would help students with lower incomes access college without overreliance on student loans. Furthermore, ensuring the award is permanently indexed to inflation would help maintain its purchasing power over the years. 

2. Pass Short-term Pell to help students access quality workforce training programs.

Our economy and workforce have also changed since the 1970s. Roughly 52 percent of today’s jobs require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year degree. However, only 43 percent of workers have access to the training and education programs that would prepare them to enter these jobs. One potential avenue to access these jobs is through short-term credential programs, such as those offered through many community colleges—but these programs are ineligible for most federal student aid including Pell Grants.  

The House-passed America COMPETES Act would expand Pell access to students enrolled in qualifying short-term credential programs. Critically, current language in the bill provides quality controls for the types of programs these funds can be used for, including ensuring they are offered by Eligible Training Providers; that they meet definitions of career pathways under both the HEA and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA); and that they lead to gainful employment. With these important guardrails in place, Short-term Pell represents an opportunity for students from families and communities with low incomes to access career-relevant skills training—and for employers in sectors like construction, manufacturing, and health care to address critical labor and skills shortages. 

3. Expand Pell access to undocumented students.

Immigrant students make up an ever-increasing proportion of our student population and face complex barriers to postsecondary access and success. In particular, undocumented students are ineligible for federal student aid, including Pell Grants. At the same time, only 21 states and the District of Columbia allow these students to access in-state tuition rates, putting a postsecondary degree out of reach even at a public institution. While many undocumented individuals arrived as children and have called the U.S. home for most of their lives, their status is a barrier to continuing their education and accessing the full opportunities of the workforce. 

While the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is uncertain, policymakers should lift the restrictions on federal student aid for undocumented students who received or would be eligible for DACA status, as well as those with temporary protected status (TPS). Access to the Pell Grant would be of particular support in helping these students access quality postsecondary education programs. 

Policymakers are at a critical moment to make transformative investments in the Pell Grant. They can use the current budget appropriations process, individual policies like the America COMPETES Act, and an eventual reauthorization to the Higher Education Act—which has stalled since March 2020—to lay the groundwork for the next 50 years of the program. We urge the administration and Congress to commit to ensuring the Pell Grant works for those who need it most and remains relevant to the needs of America’s changing student demographics.