Leaders of CA colleges, universities urge Congress to expand Pell Grant program

Jihoon Park/Staff

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The leaders of several California colleges and universities, including UC President Janet Napolitano, are working with the UC Student Association, or UCSA, to urge Congress to reinstate year-round Pell Grants and increase the program’s maximum award in fiscal year 2017 funding legislation.

In 2011, before economic insecurity brought an end to year-round Pell Grants, more than 13,500 UC students received $18 million in Pell Grant aid to cover their summer sessions, according to the UC Pell Grant Fact Sheet. The Pell program now has a funding surplus, and advocates believe that the program can be expanded to help students finance their summer studies while ensuring its financial stability in the future.

“As the college debt crisis continues to rise, Congress must make college affordability a top priority by increasing federal funding for Pell grants during summer months and year-round,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee in an email. “As a member of the education funding subcommittee, I will continue to work to ensure that every student can obtain a debt-free college education.”

Students eligible for Pell Grants currently receive up to $5,815 annually in need-based aid, which does not need to be paid back. In 2015, nearly 80,000 UC students received Pell Grants. Students at public institutions of higher education receive the majority of Pell Grants — UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA and UC Riverside each enroll more low-income students than the entire Ivy League combined, according to the fact sheet.

While financial aid packages include significant state and institutional aid, Pell Grants are a fundamental aspect of federal financial aid programs, according to a letter sent to Congress by Napolitano, California State University Chancellor Timothy White and interim California Community Colleges Chancellor Erik Skinner.

In addition, many low-income students use the maximum amount of their Pell grants in the academic year and cannot get additional aid to afford to enroll in the summer.

According to UCSA President Ralph Washington Jr., reinstating the year-round Pell Grant and increasing its maximum award would be a recognition on behalf of Congress that financial support during the summer is important and that support for higher education is a priority in order to support society.

“That would be the moral thing to do,” Washington Jr. said. “If they were not to reinstate it, it would suggest that they have other priorities. It’s a demonstration of values.”

As a Pell Grant recipient himself, Washington Jr. said it means a lot for the federal government to facilitate access to higher education regardless of what state or institution a student attends.

Interim Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Carol Christ said in an email that restoring summer Pell Grants and increasing the maximum amount would benefit institutions by increasing their capacity and would benefit students by allowing them to make better progress to their degrees.

Nicole Carlotto, UC Office of the President legislative and communications specialist, said because year-round grants were only in place for two years — from 2009 to 2011 — it is difficult to make a long-term analysis of their performance.

“We remain optimistic,” Carlotto said. “We saw this passed in the Senate Appropriations earlier this year with bipartisan support.”

Contact Aleah Jennings-Newhouse at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ajn_dc.