Opinion: Invest in college students by doubling Pell Grants

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As a native Rhode Islander, the name Clair­borne Pell evokes vivid memories of the far-reach­ing influence of Rhode Island's longest-serving U.S. Senator. As President of St. John's Univer­sity, I see up close and personal the transforma­tive impact of the federal grant program that long bears his name - a program created to provide op­portunity for students who lack the means to af­ford college.

Anyone familiar with the Pell Grant knows that it comes with a financial value, and anyone who knows a Pell Grant recipient better under­stands the incalculable worth of the largest grant program offered by the Department of Education to undergraduate students.

Created in 1972 as the Basic Educational Op­portunity Grant (BEOG) and later renamed for Sen. Claiborne Pell, the Pell Grant is the corner­stone of federal financial aid for postsecondary education. Pell Grants serve more than 6.7 mil­lion students (or 40 percent) of all undergradu­ate students in higher education. The majority of Pell Grant recipients are students with high finan­cial needs.

Historically a bi-partisan effort, the Pell Grant has broad political appeal because it helps needy students; the resources are directed to the students first and not schools, and the program allows stu­dents to apply the funds to the cost of an accredit­ed public or private institution ( or a training pro­gram) that best fits their individual educational needs.

The federal Pell Grant Preservation and Ex­pansion Act of 2021 would more than double the maximum annual Pell Grant award from $6,495 to $13,000 over the next five years. In addition, it would shift the lifetime eligibility from 12 to 18 semesters or six to nine years. Thus, the renewed effort to double Pell effectively triples the current maximum lifetime award from about $39,000 to $117,000. As college students around the coun­try-with a mix of excitement and anxiety-re­turn to campuses amid an enduring global pandemic, Congress should double Pell before the program reaches its 50th anniversary in 2022.

Critics will assert that the high cost of college is a deterrent and that colleges will simply raise tuition as federal student aid increases. Howev­er, leading higher education economists on both sides of the aisle have examined and refuted this hypothesized relationship and the idea of the caus­al relationship between increases in federal stu­dent aid and tuition prices. There are few all-en­compassing policy prescriptions for improving college affordability when considering differences between institutions and their student aid incen­tives. Indeed, most private institutions provide to their student's generous institutional aid that far ex­ceeds the combined amount of state and federal student aid.

Additional grant aid is a sound investment in economic mobility for all students, most especial­ly low-income students, as those with college de­grees earn higher incomes as adults. Like the GI Bill that preceded it, the Pell Grant is a lifeline to supporting post-secondary access for not only low-income students but for historically under­represented student populations - the same peo­ple now most disproportionally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

At St. John's University, a global and metro­politan University, thirty-seven percent of first­year students are Pell Grant recipients. Our en­during Catholic and Vincentian mission is to provide access, opportunity, and upward mobil­ity to our students. During the 2019-20 academ­ic year, ninety-nine (99) percent of undergraduate students received $417million in financial aid, in­cluding generous institutional aid to complement the support of government grants that have, over time, lost some of their purchasing power.

With the COVID-19 pandemic now impact­ing yet another academic year, students need fi­nancial assistance now more than ever. Doubling Pell will put much-needed money in the hands of students first and is a wise investment in the short and long-term success of the next generation. Pell Grants were created to ensure that every student, regardless of financial circumstances, can afford a college education. Doubling Pell Grants now will increase student access and college afford­ability; help to reduce the burden of college debt; help meet students' basic needs; increase educa­tional access and degree completion; and most im­portantly, help move our country in the direction of a larger and long-term post-COVID econom­ic recovery.

Rev. Brian J. Shanley, 0 P. is the 18th Presi­dent of St. John '.s University and served as Presi­dent of Providence College from 2005-20. 

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