From the moment I moved to the United States from Jamaica at the age of 12, going to college one day was a given. Education has always been highly valued by my family. Of course, I wanted to take advantage of the great colleges and universities offered in our new home.
The only problem? I had no idea how I would pay for it.
After months of research and many conversations with counselors and teachers, my family and I managed to assemble a patchwork of loans, grants and scholarships so that I could attend the University of Nevada, Reno.
To make ends meet and stay enrolled, I worked all throughout my undergraduate years — first at a deli and then as a resident assistant in a campus dormitory. I also volunteered as a student ambassador, giving tours to prospective students and families. Through this work, I met countless current and incoming freshmen and learned their stories.
The more students I helped, the more it became clear that far too many are struggling to pay for school. Fortunately, there is a relatively straightforward way to begin addressing the financial needs of millions of students: doubling the Pell Grant.
This was an important promise of President Biden’s during his campaign, and one he is starting to fulfill. In detailing his American Families Plan last month, Biden proposed increasing the maximum Pell Grant award by about $1,400 and expanding access to DACA recipients. Biden also proposed an annual $400 increase to Pell as part of his first budget.
These are important first steps toward ensuring that Pell remains a crucial financial lifeline for so many students. But, as the administration notes, it is only a “down payment” on Biden’s original pledge.
The Pell Grant has been a critical component of financial aid for students like me for 50 years. It not only allows us to pay for a portion of our college education, but also for basic needs like food, rent and transportation. About one-third of undergraduates — or 7 million students — rely on Pell, including nearly 60 percent of Black students and nearly half of Latinx students.
As helpful as Pell can be, its funding has failed to keep pace with skyrocketing college costs.
When Pell was first created in the 1970s, the grants could cover more than 75 percent of the cost of earning a four-year degree at a public institution. Today, the total maximum amount awarded under Pell covers just under 30 percent of that cost.
The pandemic has created even more financial strain for students, making the need to double the Pell all the more urgent. According to a new poll from Third Way and New America, more than 70 percent of students now say they worry about how they are going to pay for non-education-related bills.
Millions of learners could more easily pay their tuition. More money would go directly into the hands of students struggling to pay rent, transportation and other costs.
And that worry is immediate. Last fall, about 40 percent of students were concerned they did not have enough money to make it through the semester. Unsurprisingly, enrollment is dropping dramatically across the country, especially among first-generation students and students from low-income backgrounds. The number of high school seniors completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid has fallen by about 5.5 percent over the last year.
I graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno, in 2019. It wasn’t easy, and it took over $15,000 in student loans. Many students are not as fortunate and never finish; about 70 percent of students who drop out of school do so because of financial concerns.
I have now also earned a master’s of education in counseling-student affairs from Northern Arizona University. Through my research and my interactions with students, I am more convinced than ever that doubling Pell would be a significant step toward creating greater access to higher education. There are many ways policymakers could help students pay for college, but few would be as immediately impactful.
If Congress acts now and doubles the maximum amount available under Pell — thus allowing it to cover more than half the average cost of a four-year degree at a public institution — the share of public four-year universities that are affordable to average Pell Grant recipients would jump from 25 percent to 80 percent.
Millions of learners could more easily pay their tuition. More money would go directly into the hands of students struggling to pay rent, transportation and other costs that are just as necessary to staying enrolled and on track to graduation. And it would signal to more students like me that a college education is absolutely within our reach.
Tashauna Stewart just graduated from Northern Arizona University, where she earned an M.Ed. in counseling-student affairs. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno.