A Senate subcommittee is slated to release an appropriations bill Thursday that will expand the federal Pell grant program by providing low-income college students money to take classes throughout the year, in an effort to boost graduation rates.
Student advocates and the Obama administration have been fighting for Congress to beef up the needs-based program for months, but were worried that the Republican-controlled Congress would shoot down any proposals for the government to funnel more money into the $30 billion program. The prospects of a Pell expansion began looking up in March when the Congressional Budget Office projected a $7.8 billion surplus in funding for the program. Advocates urged Congress to use that money to extend more grants to students in financial need, and that’s exactly what the pending bill proposes.
The Senate’s departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies subcommittee bill will authorize full-time students who qualify for Pell to receive the grants three semesters a year instead of two. The administration has said this will help students afford to take a full load of courses year-round, earn a degree faster and avoid taking on a lot of student debt. President Obama doubled Pell funding in 2010 through savings eked out of reforms to the federal student loan system, but congressional budget agreements the following years cut the benefits by not allowing the grants to be used toward summer courses.
Restoring so-called year-round Pell will benefit roughly 1 million college students, according to a fact sheet released Tuesday by members of the subcommittee. The expansion will provide students up to 150 percent of their current Pell award, which could amount to an additional $1,650 on average. Lawmakers plan to maintain $22.5 billion in discretionary spending for Pell in fiscal year 2017 and increase the maximum award by $120 to $5,935 for an estimated 8 million recipients.
There is a good chance of the proposed expansion clearing both chambers. Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and ranking member Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) hammered out a bipartisan compromise on Pell that is gaining broad support in the Senate.
“This is a bipartisan bill in a Republican majority,” Murray said, in a statement. “Senator Blunt and I were able to work together under very tight budget caps to protect and expand critical investments in students, workers, women, families and the economy. This bill is a good first step and a strong floor for continued bipartisan work.”
Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) praised the work of the subcommittee in a legislation markup Tuesday, but cautioned his colleagues to remain vigilant in keeping a rein on the cost of the Pell program.
“We’ve got a lot of interchangeable members here, keep a close eye on the year-round Pell to make sure we can continue to do it,” Alexander told members of the subcommittee. “The cost of it fluctuates up and down. We did this before in 2008, and we had to repeal it the year after implementation, because it cost too much — five to nine times the estimated cost.”
Not all of the surplus funding is earmarked for the expansion. At least $1.2 billion of the money will go toward funding the National Institutes of Health and other initiatives, a proposal that has raised the ire of some lawmakers. A group of House Democrats sent a letter to the Senate subcommittee last week imploring members not to divert any of the surplus to other programs because students could use every dollar to help cover the exorbitant cost of college.
On Tuesday, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), ranking member of the House Education Committee, and Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-Tex.), ranking member of the House Higher Education subcommittee, issued a statement denouncing the Senate’s decision to shift money from the surplus elsewhere.
“We are disappointed to see that the Senate appropriations bill balances other needs on the backs of low-income college students without doing anything to put additional dollars in their pockets each semester,” Scott and Hinojosa said in the statement. “While year-round Pell eligibility will allow students to use their financial aid more flexibly, students will also be exhausting their lifetime eligibility more quickly without seeing any new dollars to help pay for college.”
Pell has not kept pace with the cost of college. Whereas the grants covered 77 percent of the cost of attending a four-year public university in 1980, it barely covered a third of the cost by 2011, according to the Education Trust. One year at a four-year public university, including tuition, fees, and room and board, cost an average $14,120 for a full-time, in-state student in 2015-2016 — and that’s after taking grants, scholarships and tax credits into account, according to the College Board. At private nonprofit colleges, the average net price is almost double, at $26,400.
“Even with the scheduled increase for the maximum Pell grant next year, it still covers the lowest share of the cost of college in over 40 years,” said Jessica Thompson, senior policy analyst at the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS). “The surplus presents us with a unique opportunity to actually invest in low-income students in a way that doesn’t require new spending and keeps the Pell program on sound footing. It is important to keep the dollars in the Pell program, in the Pell program.”
Supporters of the spending bill say it preserves enough of the money to keep Pell in surplus through the remainder of the decade, even with all of the proposed changes to the program.
While there is bipartisan support for reinstating summer Pell, members of Congress have been largely silent on other proposals to grow the federal grant program. At the start of the year, the administration also proposed raising the maximum Pell award by $300 for students who take 15 or more credits a semester. The plan would benefit an estimated 2.3 million students, according to officials.
About 8.5 million students benefited from the $31 billion program in the 2014-2015 school year. The vast majority of recipients come from families earning less than $40,000 a year. Nearly two-thirds of African American undergraduates receive Pell funding, as do 51 percent of Latino undergrads, according to the Education Trust.
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