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It’s ironic that just as the U.S. poverty rate rises to its highest level in more than four decades, the Pell Grant program—the most important source of federal aid for low-income students aspiring to a college education—celebrates its 40th anniversary.

Pell Grant program
Arnold Mitchem

To be sure, there is good reason to celebrate the Pell Grant’s huge impact on expanding college access. Named after the late U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI), the program’s need-based assistance has made it possible for 60 million students to pursue their dream of higher education, young people who otherwise would not have had the opportunity. And according to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of recipients is skyrocketing—up 52 percent since 2008, to an expected 9.4 million in award year 2011-2012—which is a direct result of the economic downturn and the growing ranks of students and families needing assistance. In New York State alone, more than 520,000 students received a Pell Grant award this year.

Despite a recent increase in the maximum value of the Pell Grant to $5,550 next year, its value remains half of what it was decades ago, compared to the rising cost of college. The average Pell Grant now covers just 21 percent of the cost of attendance at a post-secondary institution, and with recent changes that reduce student eligibility to 12 semesters from 18, tens of thousands of students will be left without enough financial support to complete their education.

Why this erosion in value? We have seen an unfortunate shift by policymakers and institutions of higher education away from emphasizing need-based aid to ensure that college remains open to all students, regardless of their economic circumstances, and an accompanying move in favor of education tax credits and merit-based aid. The problem is that the populations historically underrepresented in higher education—low-income, minority and first-generation students—are the same populations that most depend on need-based federal assistance.

Yes, it is important to balance the need to provide financial aid to large and growing numbers of underserved students with other considerations. We must ensure that this enormous investment of taxpayers’ resources is used efficiently and effectively, including providing incentives for students to complete college within a reasonable timeframe.

But increasing financial support is only half the story. Equally important is providing Pell Grant recipients with other types of support and guidance. Many of these students face multiple barriers—academic, socioeconomic, cultural, informational—to post-secondary education, not just a lack of funds. Merely providing them with financial aid is not enough to get them through college.

U.S. Department of Education data show that six years after beginning their undergraduate program, students who have received a Pell Grant and participated in TRIO Student Support Services—another federal program that provides counseling, tutoring, mentoring and other guidance to underserved students—have a higher rate of earning a baccalaureate degree (30.9 percent) than other low-income college students who only received a Pell Grant (21 percent).

With poverty rates rising and the U.S. slipping to 16th among OECD countries in the percentage of college graduates, federal and state policymakers and college leaders need to do everything possible to support and encourage students from all walks of life who aspire to a post-secondary degree. Instead of shrinking that opportunity, we should be working together to guarantee access to higher education by ensuring that rising tuition and student debt are held in check and that assistance—financial aid combined with other types of proven support—is focused more on those with the greatest need.

After four decades, that would truly be cause for celebration.

Dr. Arnold Mitchem is president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, which includes the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Education.

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  1. PELL Grant Eligibilty changes in the FY 2012 put up more barriers to access despite the record amounts of grant funding provided. It is very obvious that the changes were made due to economics, and have great impact on the number of students who would have received PELL in FY 2012 and students who need PELL in the FY 2012. Elimation of the Ability to Benefit (ABT), Changes to Income levels for Zero EFC, auto zero EFC changed from $32K to 23K, Elimination of students receiving 10% Max award and finally a reduction in the maximum number of semesters. These changes and the increase in PELL awards tell us that there are more people eligible than ever before (not a good economic factor) and tell us that the changes (not good for access) have shifted to an even greater loss for lower middle class americans. The changes brought to PELL eligibility at a time when the economy is bust are just as dismal as the contradiction of “boosting access for low income”. Perhaps the very government who has made these changes to PELL is the same government who is making changes to add a new American class among Americans. Do not turn Claiborne Pell’s dream into a nightmare.

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