Colleges Want Congress to Double Aid to Low-Income Students

  • Pell Grants help 7 million students attend college each year
  • Lawmakers aim to use funds to support job training

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College lobby groups launched a campaign on Thursday for lawmakers to double the total value of grants to low-income students.

Pell Grants once covered two-thirds of the total cost of a four-year college, but rising college costs have eroded the value of the grant. The maximum Pell award—$6,345 this academic year—covers less than a third of the cost of the typical four-year school.

Lobby groups representing four-year state institutions, private colleges, and community colleges who often find themselves at odds over legislation have lined up behind the proposal. More than 1,000 schools and student advocacy organizations have signed onto the demand, which they’re making ahead of another major stimulus package.

Photographer: Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A student and her family pose for pictures on move-in day at San Diego State University in San Diego, Calif., in August 2020.

“It’s our top legislative priority,” said Jon Fansmith, director of government relations at the American Council on Education, the chief lobby group for colleges. Supporters say they’re open to any vehicle to doubling the grants, but timing the campaign ahead of the stimulus talks.

Higher education enrollment has plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic, driven mostly by lower numbers of low-income students and Black students who qualify for Pell Grants.

Progressives in Congress have pressured President Joe Biden to cancel student debt via executive action to aid the economic recovery. Supporters of more generous Pell Grants are making the case for reducing the costs of higher education on the front end.

“The pandemic has disproportionately impacted lower-income earners in our society. It has also disproportionately impacted communities of color,” said Carrie Warick, director of policy and advocacy at the National College Attainment Network. “A double Pell investment at this time would address the affordability concerns of students in these demographics.”

Economic Recovery, Inequity

College lobby groups told lawmakers in a letter Thursday that doubling the grant would aid the economic recovery and reduce racial and economic inequities—both major themes of the Biden administration. Most Pell recipients have family incomes of less than $30,000, according to the National College Access Network.

The Biden administration is considering new spending proposals that could total as much as $3 trillion to give another boost to the economy. The White House has signaled that the proposals would include free community college. Some lawmakers also want to see legislation expanding Pell Grants to short-term job training included in that package.

Job Training to Get Boost Under Fresh Bid to Expand College Aid

The call to double the grant would be much more expensive than either of those proposals. It’s also attractive to public colleges, as well as private schools that are left out of many free college plans.

Biden endorsed doubling Pell Grants as part of campaign platform but hasn’t proposed such long-term spending increases so far. The $1.9 trillion stimulus plan Congress passed this month included $40 billion in aid to colleges and students.

The ask from higher education groups would likely amount to similar spending over the long-term. In the 2019-20 academic year, the Pell program awarded $27.8 billion in grants to students.

“We think a recovery package is the perfect place to double the Pell grant,” said Craig Lindwarm, vice president for governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. “There is no true long-term recovery without an investment in the nation’s workforce.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at; Heather Rothman at

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