The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats sacrifice major increase in Pell grants for universal community college in budget bill

A US flag fies in front of the US Capitol building below an overcast sky in Washington, DC (Samuel Corum / AFP)
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President Biden set an ambitious agenda of pouring federal dollars into students and institutions of higher education with the fewest financial resources, but trade-offs in bringing that plan to fruition could undermine some key objectives.

The House Education Committee unveiled its piece of Biden’s $3.5 trillion spending package Wednesday, making good on many of the president’s commitments but scaling back his vision for higher education.

The bill delivers on Biden’s pledge to cover two years of community college tuition and extend the benefit to many students attending historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and other minority-serving institutions. It provides a more generous funding scheme to entice states to opt into universal community college, with the federal government putting up all of the money in the first year and lowering its annual investment by 5 percent for the next four years.

“It’s a significant step forward,” said Martha Kanter, head of the College Promise Campaign, which advocates for tuition-free college. “This gets everyone off to a good start. The states that have made investments will be able to meet the maintenance of effort requirement.”

But the legislation falls flat on Biden’s call to up the maximum Pell grant for students in financial need by $1,400, lowering the increase to $500. That would bring the max to around $7,000, half as much as higher education groups say is needed to increase the buying power of the Pell grant.

The bill scraps much of Biden’s plan to upgrade research infrastructure at historically Black and minority-serving institutions. It also whittles down his proposed $62 billion investment for college retention and completion grants to $9 billion over seven years. Those funds would go to emergency aid grants as well as mental health and other wraparound services that advocates say can help students graduate.

Higher education experts worry that dedicating fewer dollars to institutions could create an untenable situation for underfunded colleges. They say students are being incentivized through tuition assistance to attend schools without enough resources to help get them to the finish line.

“We have a college dropout crisis. More financial aid alone won’t solve that,” said Michael Dannenberg, vice president of strategic initiatives for policy at think tank and advocacy organization Education Reform Now. “College should be cheaper, better and fairer. House Committee Democrats are focused on the cheaper part.”

While Reid Setzer, director of government affairs at the Education Trust, an education advocacy nonprofit, said the proposed investments fall short of what is needed, he said the bill still supports proposals that address issues of equity in higher education. The bill, for instance, opens financial aid eligibility to undocumented students receiving immigration benefits under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program for immigrants brought to the United States as children.

“There are big pieces that get us to where we need to be in creating equity,” Setzer said. “We are more than a decade past renewing the Higher Education Act, so we need to get this done.”

Ultimately, higher education experts say the sector lost out to K-12 funding, as is often the case with state and federal policy. The lion’s share of federal spending went to providing universal preschool, child care and other worthy policies to support families, said Terry W. Hartle, a senior vice president of the American Council on Education.

“This was about money," Hartle said. "The committee had about $700 billion to spend, and the cost of doing everything that the president called for … was about $920 billion, so things were going to be cut.”