Preserving the Original 'Free College' Plan

Providing free college for everyone is a wonderful concept in theory, but it would be all but impossible in practice, argue Abigail Seldin and Kim Cook, and there is a realistic alternative.

February 22, 2016

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.

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