In North Carolina, 37.7 percent of undergraduate students received the Pell Grant for the 2018-2019 academic year. The Pell Grant, which was introduced in 1965 as part of the Higher Education Act, was meant to be more than just financial aid. It was created to give prospective college students the opportunity to attend a college or university regardless of their family’s financial situation. During the 1970s, a maximum Pell Grant covered more than 75 percent of the total four-year college tuition cost. Today, however, more than 50 years after the Pell Grant was established, the maximum Pell Grant covers less than 30 percent of tuition at a public four-year college. Between the 1985-86 and 2017-18 academic years, the average cost of attending a four-year college or university in the United States increased by 497 percent—more than double the rate of inflation.
While Congress attempted to keep up with inflation and rising costs, a substantial investment in the program is necessary to help offset the college affordability crisis. Due to rising college costs and unequal distribution of scholarships and aid, low-income students must rely on other services, such as state and institutional aid and federal and private student loans, to cover the remaining costs. In the UNC college system, where 84 percent of Pell students receive loans and only 46 percent of non-Pell students take out loans, Pell students borrow $3,000 more in loans than non-Pell borrowers, and students from the lowest-income families end up borrowing the most and graduate at lower rates. These statistics demonstrate that the Pell Grant is no longer serving in the manner intended: as a means for students of all financial backgrounds to obtain a college degree and financial independence.
Decreased student aid in relation to spiking tuition prices creates additional impediments for students. For example, low-income students are forced to choose between forgoing college, which makes it difficult to find a well-paying career, or attending college and incurring crushing student debt. Neither of these are good financial choices for low-income students, but many opt for the latter due to the enormous promise of a college degree and the opportunities that come with it. They pursue a degree that is supposed to guarantee a stable financial future, only to graduate with staggering sums of debt, often in a worse financial condition than when they started college.
Now, in the midst of an ever-worsening student debt crisis and the pandemic-driven economic downturn, the moment has come to make crucial investments to make higher education affordable for low- and middle-income students. Previous recessions were associated with higher rates of college attendance, but the pandemic has had the opposite effect. Furthermore, the pandemic has put many college students out of work; the student unemployment rate increased from the previous year’s calculations to 10.8 percent. Out of work and out of class, as many universities moved classes to Zoom but kept tuition prices high, low-income students bore additional financial burdens from the pandemic.
With the upcoming budget season, the federal government has an opportunity to leave a legacy of strengthened student financial assistance. North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, the ranking member of the important Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, has long advocated Pell Grants and higher education funding; with his 2022 retirement, he is positioned to solidify his strong legacy as an advocate for students by supporting North Carolina’s current and future students through doubling the Pell Grant.
By advocating to double Pell, Senator Richard Burr can invest in the future: current and prospective low- and middle-income students who depend on financial aid to enroll in higher education could do so without burdening their families. Further, more students could earn college degrees and gain a chance at financial mobility with much less debt.
Over the next few months, while Congress writes the federal budget, the topic of college affordability and the Pell Grant will undoubtedly be discussed. The time to act is now: with decreasing college enrollment rates, the importance of a college degree in the workforce, and the worsening student debt crisis, investing in Pell Grants—and in low- and middle-income students—is a bipartisan and targeted way to do so. We urge Senator Burr and his colleagues in Congress to restore Pell’s promise and Double Pell.
Hannah Elkins, North Carolina Public Interest Research Group, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Lamar Richards, Student Body President, Trustee, UNC-CH Board of Trustees
Collyn Smith, Vice President, Undergraduate Student Government Executive Branch
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