It’s back-to-school season for everyone from kindergarteners to college and university students. As the president of Fordham University, I relish the opportunity to welcome new students to campus and welcome back our continuing students. And yet I know there are some students accepted to colleges and universities across the country—including my own institution, at which we offer more than $185 million in financial aid for undergraduate students—who are not able to enroll this fall because they do not have the financial resources to pursue a college degree. This doesn’t have to be their reality; our country has programs and funding in place that can and should help make college accessible for all.
The most obvious opportunity to increase student enrollment and graduation in college is to increase the amount of the individual Pell Grant award.
As background, Pell Grants are the largest student aid program and the foundation of federal student aid. Unlike student loans, students do not have to repay grants and they are awarded from the federal government to qualifying low-income students—not to the institution—for undergraduate study at all colleges and universities. This is important, because it means students can use their Pell award even if they transfer to another institution. Students are given the freedom to determine where and how they want to enroll in college.
Increasing Pell awards from $6,495 to $13,000 ensures community college is free for all Pell-eligible students and will reduce debt taken on by Pell-eligible students attending four-year colleges and universities. We know grant aid helps to keep low-income students in college and on track to graduate. Doubling Pell will put more money in the hands of students first and allow them to use it at the college or training program that best fits their educational needs. Forty years ago, Pell Grants covered more than 75% of the cost of college; today, the maximum grant covers less than 30% of the college experience. It is crucial that Congress acts now to increase the Pell Grant amount students can receive.
The need for financial aid is growing across the country and in our own backyards, and I am proud that Fordham meets over 76% of our students’ financial need. From 1980 through 2019, the number of students eligible for Pell Grants jumped from 2.7 million to 6.7 million students. Fordham is part of a vibrant community, and we are grateful to call the Bronx home to our Rose Hill campus. In 2019-2020, $28.4 billion in Pell grants was awarded nationally, with 431,358 students in New York state receiving $1.9 billion in Pell aid, and 15,347 of our own Congressional district’s students were awarded over $65 million in Pell Grants. The power of additional federal grant aid to students in my community would have a tremendously positive impact for years to come.
If the Pell Grant is doubled, not only will current students receive increased grants, but the pool of students eligible for Pell Grants will grow, providing more working-class students access to aid and therefore access to higher learning. Approximately 7 million Americans receive Pell Grants each year, with nearly 60% of Black students; half of American Indian or American Native students; nearly half of Latinx students; and 30% of white students using Pell Grants to help pay for college.
Doubling Pell is not only the most effective way to make college affordable and accessible for students, but also the easiest and most efficient way for Congress to make higher education a reality for all students who want to attend college. It does not require new social programs and already has longstanding bipartisan support.
The impact of doubling the Pell Grant can have life-changing effects on America’s traditional and adult students and will limit their debt so the next generation is able to have greater economic stability once they join the workforce. This effort would take some of the immediate financial burden off students with high financial need, which means they can focus, alongside their peers, on the educational experience rather than the expense.
Joseph M. McShane, S.J., is the president of Fordham University, the Jesuit University of New York.