Pell Grant Program’s Future: Many Risks and Many Questions Remain
There is considerable talk in Washington these days about Pell Grants. Both the House Majority  and the White House  have suggested plans for the future of the low-income student grant program, though it is still unclear whether either of the plans will move forward. Last week, the Washington think tank, Education Sector, hosted a forum titled, “Is the Pell Grant Sustainable?” to discuss what should become of the program that helps low-income students pay for undergraduate degrees. While the title of the event was meant to serve as the guiding question for conversation, the query was quickly reconsidered as the wrong one to ask. The panelists agreed that the Pell Grant program needs to persist so the more appropriate question to ask became, “Are we willing and capable of sustaining the Pell Grant program?”
The United States, without Pell Grants, would face many risks: the risk of limiting social mobility for low-income students, the risk that the current generation of students would be the first to be less educated than their parents, and the risk that the nation could continue to fall in international standings for college completion. Eliminating or weakening the program would result in a more ill-equipped workforce, exacerbating the skills gap and widening income bracket differentials.
With tuition costs skyrocketing year after year, a number of questions come to mind: How do we maintain the program’s effectiveness without spending billions of dollars each year that many believe we cannot afford? Do we opt for a temporary fix that delays for another year a decision about the program’s fate? Do we commit to a longer-term solution that could result in the elimination of hundreds of thousands of aid recipients each year? Is Pell, like so many other programs, in need of a complete do-over?
It’s a complicated issue that will require a lot of attention from policymakers. But to put these decisions off postelection certainly won’t do the students who rely on the aid, nor their future employers, any favors.