An Income Cap to Restrict Pell Grant Eligibility Would Punish Students with True Financial Need

Unlike its House counterpart, the Senate’s 2018 budget resolution expected to pass tonight or tomorrow does not detail cuts to student loans and Pell Grants. However, it proposes overall spending levels that would require similar if not exactly the same cuts to student aid proposed in the House’s budget resolution that passed in early October.  We’ve previously called attention to these proposals, including the elimination of all mandatory funding for Pell Grants. Today we focus on another of these unnecessary and harmful proposals—an arbitrary maximum income cap that would eliminate Pell Grants for students with household incomes above a fixed threshold, regardless of family size or other financial circumstances that affect their ability to pay for college. Attempting to limit Pell Grant eligibility in this way is not new, but the current political climate in which the proposal is being advanced, combined with recent external encouragement, makes resisting such efforts more urgently critical.  

Arguments for a maximum income cap rely on the unsupported assertion that an increasing share of Pell Grants are going to “middle income” students who don’t have nearly as much financial need as the lowest income students. However, data clearly show that the vast majority of all Pell Grant recipients continue to have family incomes of $40,000 or less, and furthermore that the median family income of Pell Grant recipients (in 2011-12, $26,100 for dependents and $12,700 for independents) has been declining over time.

Additionally, the federal aid eligibility formula rightly recognizes that while income is a central component of a family’s ability to contribute toward the cost of college, income alone is an insufficient determinant of financial need. In addition to income information, the federal financial aid formula also takes into account factors including assets, taxes paid, household size, and the number of family members in college at the same time—factors that directly affect a family’s ability to afford college for each student. For example, of the Pell Grant recipients with family incomes above $40,000, more than two-thirds have families of four or larger, and almost two in five have families of five or larger.* Of the just 10% of Pell Grant recipients with family incomes over $50,000, almost four in five (79%) come from families of four or more, and many have more than one family member in college. While an income of $50,000 may be near the median US income, larger families must use that “middle” income to cover basic needs for more family members, and potentially to cover college costs for more than one family member at the same time.

Establishing an arbitrary maximum income cap would undermine college access and completion goals by forcing students with very high financial need to make up for lost grant aid by working longer hours, taking out more loans, or forgoing college altogether. Pell Grant recipients already face disproportionate debt burdens in attending and completing college: Nearly nine in 10 Pell Grant recipients who graduate from four-year colleges have student loans, and their average debt is $4,750 more than students who did not receive a Pell Grant.

Now is the time to protect and strengthen the Pell Grant for all students with significant financial need, not arbitrarily restrict access to those grants.

* See the Department of Education’s Federal Pell Grant Program 2015-16 End of Year Report, Table 71: Distribution of Federal Pell Grant Recipients by Family Income and Family Size, available for download here:

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