Doubling the Pell: A guide for hesitant lawmakers

Illustration of an unsure person faced with a gradually fading staircase of text that reads 'PELL', leading to a graduation cap.
Amanda Tsang/Staff

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In 2021, higher education students across the country rallied together to support federal financial aid. The Double the Pell campaign seeks to reverse decades of inaction by Congress through the strengthening and expansion of the Pell Grant. After a year of advocacy, Congressional visits, Twitter storms and support statements, Congress has not done much more than make promises. The federal government’s deadlock over the expansion of the Pell Grant is surprising due to its bipartisan support, positive effects on the economy and necessity in protecting the quality of life for students as tuition increases each year. So today, we’d like to convince even the most skeptical senator why doubling the Pell is the most effective way to support higher education and why it must be done now.

For context, the Pell Grant is a type of federal financial aid that is awarded to those students who can prove extraordinary financial need. About 70% of Pell Grant recipients have families that make less than $30,000 a year, while nearly 90% have families that make less than $50,000 a year. This type of financial aid is especially helpful to low- and middle-income students, as it generally does not have to be repaid at the end of their degree. Furthermore, the grant can be used to pay not only tuition, but also fees, room and board.

The Pell Grant has historically increased the number of students enrolling in college from lower- and middle-income families. It currently supports about 7 million students who attend higher education across the United States. Additionally, it has lowered the chances for these students to drop out of college, oftentimes due to the increased financial security during their studies.

It is also an incredibly powerful tool for underserved communities on campus. In a study done by the National Center for Labor Statistics, it was noted that for the 2015-16 academic year, Black, Latinx and Indigenous populations were far more likely to receive the Pell Grant. It was estimated that 72% of Black students had received this type of aid in 2015-16. This further pushes for the Pell Grant to be increased as it is an important resource for leveling inequality in education.

The need for a larger Pell Grant is due in part to the significant decrease in the purchasing power of the grant. Paying for college tuition, room and board and other expenses can easily reach $75,000 a year at some private universities and often even exceeds $30,000 a year at public institutions. While the education received at these institutions is invaluable, many families cannot afford to pay the high prices that the universities demand.

When awarded the maximum amount, the Pell Grant barely covers one-sixth of the tuition at a public university, and doesn’t even make a dent into the costs of private education. However, when the Pell Grant was established in the 1970s, it covered more than three-quarters of the costs of attending a public university. Additionally, the cost of tuition is expected to go up for students. The UC Board of Regents recently voted that the next cohort of students’ tuition will steadily increase by at least inflation throughout the next six years.

While university-related costs have increased exponentially since the 1970s, so have other costs to being a student, such as private housing, food, books and health care. The financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on many American families has simply exacerbated this trend and increased the need for a much higher Pell Grant. According to a poll by Third Way and New America published in early 2021, about three in four students are worried about being able to pay bills not related to education, whereas about two-thirds of students are worried about their ability to pay tuition.

Nearly two-thirds of UC Berkeley students receive some form of financial aid, which includes “some 21% of incoming freshmen and 43% of Cal’s transfer students” who receive the federal Pell Grant. Thus, every tuition increase further diminishes the ability of Berkeley students to afford their education. Furthermore, as of 2016, 44% of undergraduate UC Berkeley students face food insecurity and 10% have faced housing insecurity due to limited financial resources. Without greater assistance, many campus students face having to choose between their quality of life and their education.

As a student who comes from a single-parent, low-income family, the federal Pell Grant has been a crucial resource in affording college. During the COVID-19 pandemic, my parent lost her job, and as a high school student on the cusp of graduation, this negatively affected my outlook on college. For many students such as myself, their goals and aspirations become stunted by financial limitations. Even now as a college student, I worry excessively about finances, worries that many students share and detract from their studies.

The call to Double the Pell is far from over. Great emphasis must be placed on what this type of increase would mean for students. By doubling the Pell Grant, students would be free to focus on their studies without having to take on debilitating amounts of work, worry about basic necessities or take out too many loans — helping them maintain an overall better quality of life. After decades of fighting inequity, the power of the Pell Grant has decreased and aged. Students will continue to suffer unless Congress provides the necessary aid that doubling the Pell Grant would bring.

Anahí-Marcella Araiza and Catalin Clougherty are UC Berkeley students writing on behalf of the ASUC executive affairs vice president. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.