The Pell Grant: 50 Years of Opportunities

“I would never have had the chance to pursue my goals without the help of the Pell Grant. To me, the Pell Grant means opportunity.

— L.T., Eastern Washington University student and Pell Grant recipient

June 23, 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the Pell Grant program, the single largest source of federal grant aid for undergraduate students. COP is proud to join a national campaign celebrating “Pell Week” (June 19-25) to draw attention to this landmark student aid program.

What is the Pell Grant?

The Pell Grant, originally known as the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, was created when Congress reauthorized the Higher Education Act of 1965 in 1972. Grants were first issued during the 1973-74 academic year. In 1980, the program was renamed in honor of Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, the prime sponsor of the legislation.

Unlike student loans and other forms of aid, the Pell Grant does not need to be repaid. Once an award amount is determined, money is distributed from the college or university directly to the student.

Who does the Pell Grant serve?

Pell Grants have helped more than 80 million students since the program’s inception. In the 2020-21 award year, 30% of undergraduate students, or 6.2 million, received a Pell Grant. Of those, approximately 80% came from families with incomes of $40,000 or less.

Beyond low-income students, Pell Grants support other historically underrepresented student populations. Nearly 60% of Black students, half of American Indian/Alaska Native students, half of Hispanic/Latino students, and 36% of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students receive Pell Grants. Additionally, 40% of student-veterans and half of first-generation college students and student-parents receive Pell Grants.

Recent Pell Grant legislation and proposals

Building on bipartisan action to expand Pell Grants in recent years, Democrats in Congress reintroduced the Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act in June 2021. If enacted, the proposed legislation would double the maximum Pell Grant award, restore the automatic annual inflation adjustment (which expired after the 2017-18 award year), and make other changes to expand the program for students and families.

In March 2022, President Biden signed legislation which increased the maximum Pell Grant by $400, bringing the maximum award amount to $6,895 in the 2022-23 academic year. While the increase has been applauded as a step in the right direction, advocates emphasize that it’s not enough to provide significant relief to low- and moderate-income students and families. A growing number agree that the time has come to double the maximum grant amount.

Why double the Pell Grant?

The purchasing power of the Pell Grant is at a record low. Although Congress has demonstrated strong bipartisan support for the program and approved small increases to the maximum award amount each year through the annual appropriations process, those increases have been outpaced by inflation.

In the 1970s, the maximum Pell Grant award covered more than three-quarters of the cost of tuition, fees and room and board at public four-year institutions, but today it covers only 29% of these costs. Furthermore, this funding gap leads Pell students to take out more federal loans than their non-Pell counterparts. Data has shown that Pell graduates incur approximately $4,500 more debt than non-Pell graduates.

The Pell Grant supports Washington students

More than 87,000 Washingtonians rely on Pell Grants to pay for college. Together with state programs such as the Washington College Grant and College Bound Scholarship, the Pell Grant remains a critical source of support to Washington students, allowing them to reach their postsecondary and career goals.

Doubling the Pell Grant would help restore its purchasing power and greatly increase access and opportunity for students in our state, and across our nation.

Follow the conversation on Twitter with #PellTurns50 and #DoublePell.

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