The Institute of College Access and Success (TICAS) partnered with Dr. Nick Hillman (professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis and the director of the Student Success Through Applied Research Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison), to publish a series of analyses that highlight baseline statistics on access to the federal Pell Grant program and completion rates for U.S. higher education institutions by three sectors—community colleges, public and non-profit universities, and for-profit colleges. This series is intended to inform policy conversations about how to best strengthen Pell Grants to increase both college affordability and completion.
The series draws from two U.S. Department of Education public data sources: College Scorecard and Pell Grant Volume reports. Pell access rates are derived from both sources. College Scorecard, specifically, provided completion rates for Pell Grant recipients. In conjunction with other existing data sources, College Scorecard data enhances “estimates of institutional progression and completion related outcomes.”
The federal Pell Grant program provides need-based grant aid to low- and moderate-income students to help cover college costs. Each year, Pell Grants help more than six million students cover college costs. Critically, Pell Grants help students pay tuition, but also other costs such as housing, transportation, food, and books, which can be a major roadblock to completion. The Pell Grant program is particularly critical for BIPOC students, with nearly 60 percent of Black students, half of American Indian or Alaska Native students, and almost half of all Latinx students receiving a Pell Grant each year.
However, the value of the Pell Grant award has not kept up with student need. Rising college costs—driven in significant part by declining state investment in public higher education—have shifted ever more of the burden of paying for college onto students and families. During its peak year in 1975-76, the Pell Grant award covered nearly 80 percent of the cost of attending a public four-year college. Today, the maximum Pell Grant award covers less than one-third of this cost. To fill this cost gap, many students rely on loans, contributing to rising student debt burdens. Pell Grants are also no longer automatically adjusted each year to keep pace with inflation, meaning the award amount faces an annual risk of losing value from one year to the next.
Calls for significant new investments in the Pell Grant program are not new, but they take on new urgency in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The effects of the pandemic have largely been felt by students for whom college affordability was already a challenge, with communities of color being the most severely impacted. Among students employed before the pandemic, 1 in 3 experienced financial disruptions and 1 in 4 lost their job. Students experiencing food insecurity generally lost access to campus-based food pantries because of campus closures. And, nearly one-third of college students reported issues with internet connectivity, exacerbating the enduring digital divide.
As policymakers mark the 50th anniversary of the Pell Grant program, they must make key investments so the program can fulfill its promise of making college truly affordable and accessible for all students, regardless of background. These investments should include doubling the maximum award, so it covers roughly half of the cost of attending a four-year public college; restoring an automatic annual inflation adjustment to ensure predictable annual increases going forward and reduce future erosion of the grant’s purchasing power; funding Pell Grants entirely through mandatory spending to protect the program and ensure predictability for recipients; and, expanding program eligibility to more students.