When Congress proposed last month to cut spending for the Pell Grant program, which was created more than 30 years ago and remains the foundation of federal higher-education support for needy students, the move intensified a national debate over what role, if any, the grants should continue to play in helping low-income students attend college during these tough economic times. The Chronicle of Higher Education asked six of the nation's top thinkers in the areas of higher education and public policy to share their thoughts on what the Pell Grant program should look like in the future.
Some of the more recent critiques of the Pell Grant program argue that it does not provide students with incentives for completion. That point is supported by research showing that a sizable number of college students drop out, often in the first or second year.
While the issue of college dropouts deserves attention, in considering the value of the Pell Grant program it is necessary to acknowledge that various factors limit the program's effectiveness. For one thing, growth in college costs has outpaced growth in the Pell Grant program. Despite regular increases in funding, the purchasing power of Pell Grants has diminished significantly over the last three decades. In addition, the number of students eligible to participate in the program has grown substantially in recent years, and continued growth is projected, accompanied by an increase in program costs.
Discussions about the need to restructure the program are not new, and numerous proposals exist. Some suggestions include increasing award amounts in the first and second years and decreasing them in subsequent years or decreasing award amounts in earlier years and increasing them in subsequent years. Others look at simplifying the financial-aid process to allow for early award notification for high-school students. Still others suggest adjusting federal need analysis to better aid the neediest students. Performance-based scholarships are also under consideration.
Each of these proposals has some merit, but they also have different goals. Some encourage access, others aim to foster completion. Although both federal and state policies tend to separate the goals of access and completion, that approach is limiting. As we think about the best approach for restructuring Pell Grants, we have to begin with both of these objectives in mind—access and success. But regardless of whether Pell operates under the existing framework or an improved one, the program must be adequately funded to be effective, and institutions must respond to pressure to constrain costs and focus on increasing the educational quality and graduation rates of their Pell Grant recipients. Providing financial assistance to college-ready, low- and moderate-income students is a sound financial investment for our nation, making the Pell Grant program absolutely necessary for students—and for society.
Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D., is the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, an independent nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.