Making college not only more affordable but also actually free for everyone has been the subject of much recent debate in Washington, in the national news and on the presidential campaign trail. While a wonderful concept in theory, such a proposal would be all but impossible in practice, given today’s political climate and the massive growth in government spending that a truly free college plan would require. What’s more, these ideas distract from the work we can and should be doing to strengthen an existing federal program that already makes college free, or mostly free, for many low-income students: the Pell Grant.
With a current maximum award of $5,775, Pell Grants cover virtually full freight at most community colleges and, when combined with need and merit-based institutional aid, can make a sizable dent in the bill at most public four-year schools, too. But while more than eight million low-income students used some form of the program last year alone, millions more never even knew it was an option.
That disconnect is troubling for many reasons, not least of all because it means our poorest students are leaving money on the table. And in some cases, the perceived lack of affordable options could deter them from applying to college at all.
President Obama’s recent executive action allowing students to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid earlier in the year will help address these concerns. In fact, the change is projected to add as many as 50,000 new students to the Pell Grant ranks once implemented next fall. And yet we know more than two million students every year could qualify for federal financial aid but never even apply, including roughly 1.3 million students who would be eligible for the maximum Pell Grant.
Clearly, we in higher education need to do more work to ensure low-income students understand their full range of college and financial aid options. Our organizations are both grounded in the belief that, when it comes to college access, better information yields better outcomes. It’s the reason we teamed up in November to promote the Thankful4Pell campaign, a coordinated effort that brought students, educators, advocates and policy leaders together to raise awareness about the availability and importance of Pell Grants. But we also recognize that, without the necessary federal resources, our work to make the financial aid process easier to navigate can only go so far.
Unfortunately, the portion of college costs fully covered by Pell Grants is shrinking. While that is largely due to rising tuition rates and deep funding cuts to higher education budgets at the state level, it can also be attributed to stagnating support at the federal level. For proof, we need look no further than the most recent spending plan of the Budget Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, which sought to freeze Pell funding for the next 10 years.
The good news is that as lawmakers begin to consider the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act this year, it will provide an important opportunity for strengthening and fortifying the Pell Grant system. From a college access perspective, efforts to insulate the program from the increasingly frequent volatility of partisan budget fights by authorizing mandatory funding would be a key step forward. Equally important, Congress should work to address the challenge of shrinking grant-to-tuition ratios by tying award amounts to the consumer price index, just as we do with Social Security benefits. That would provide some much-needed predictability around grant levels, not to mention increased purchasing power for students.
Finally, efforts to make Pell Grants available year-round have garnered strong bipartisan support, including the backing of President Obama and the U.S. Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee chairman, Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Legislators should seriously consider these grants as a means of increasingly flexibility for the growing number of students taking classes outside of the standard fall and spring semesters.
For more than four decades, Pell Grants have allowed tens of millions of poor Americans to access the economic opportunity and personal empowerment that only a college education can provide. They are the original “free college” plan, and that’s something we should all be working to preserve.
Abigail Seldin is the co-founder of College Abacus and vice president of innovation and product management at ECMC Group.Kim Cook is the executive director of the National College Access Network, a nonprofit organization.
Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, a Republican, on Friday vetoed a bill that would have provided $721 million for community colleges and for the state scholarship program for low-income students, The Chicago Tribune reported. Public colleges and the state student aid program, which also helps students at private colleges, have not received state funds since July because of the failure of legislators and the governor to agree on a budget plan. The bill Rauner vetoed was intended to help community colleges and low-income students while efforts to adopt a state budget continue. Many colleges whose students have state grants (which were theoretically awarded but haven't been paid) have been covering the missing funds, but that is becoming increasingly difficult for some of them.
The Obama administration should improve its College Scorecard by imposing higher standards for calculating loan repayment rates and breaking down earnings data by program, a new report by the Center for American Progress recommends.
The analysis of the U.S. Department of Education's Scorecard concludes that while much of the data is helpful, there are a number of policy and technical changes that could improve the consumer tool. The U.S. Congress also should reverse the federal ban on a student-unit database to more accurately track student outcomes in higher education, the report advises.
Twitter featured many posts in the last two days about a report from Texas that seven armed U.S. marshals showed up at the Houston residence a man with outstanding student debt. Many worried that the millions of Americans with student debt now had to fear armed agents of the U.S. government. The New York Times reported that the story was true, and that there was some context. Marshals are being used to track down debtors with arrest warrants because they missed court hearings related to their debt. They are not being used for those who are repaying their loans, the overwhelming majority of whom have no arrest warrants. In the case of those who tracked down the Houston man, authorities told the Times that they had been trying to collect his debt since 2012. The reason seven marshals were involved is that authorities heard the man say he had a gun, and so increased the size of the group at his residence.
Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton used Thursday night's debate to reiterate their support for plans that would make public higher education free (under the Sanders plan) or debt-free (under the Clinton plan). But Clinton drew attention to one feature of her plan that isn't in the Sanders plan. Both plans anticipate a federal-state partnership, but the Clinton plan has provisions for public colleges in states where the governors and legislatures refuse to provide their share of the match. The debate was held at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and Clinton said she doubted that Governor Scott Walker, a Republican who has pushed for deep cuts in state support for higher education, would participate.
"Senator Sanders’s plan really rests on making sure that governors like Scott Walker contribute $23 billion on the first day to make college free. I am a little skeptical about your governor actually caring enough about higher education to make any kind of commitment like that," Clinton said, to applause. In his response, Sanders reiterated (also to applause) his commitment to free tuition in public higher education, but he did not respond to Clinton's specific criticism, except to note that the United States earlier evolved to make universal K-12 education free.
Louisiana officials informed colleges in the state on Thursday that they would stop receiving the funds they need to cover their students' grants under the state's merit-based scholarship program, The Advocatereported. Governor John Bel Edwards said Thursday night that colleges and universities would be expected to make up the 20 percent of the funding (roughly $28 million) that the state is withholding, so that students themselves would be made whole as the state's contract with TOPS recipients requires.
The state is facing a $943 million budget shortfall, and major budget cuts are expected.
The world is not lacking for reports on how to restructure the federal student financial aid programs. But here's a new one to chew over, from the Urban Institute and its researchers Sandy Baum and Martha Johnson: "Strengthening Federal Student Aid."
The report calls for combining the varied student loan repayment plans based on borrowers' incomes into one "universal, automatic and frugal income-driven repayment plan," and consolidating the numerous tax credits and deductions for college expenses into a single option, among other things.