Is Pell Well?

By Jim Paterson


Along with so much about higher education that has been jostled by COVID-19, the need to readdress and reset our thinking about racial injustices, and other events this year, the status of financial aid—the need for it and the supply of it—is uncertain. Even the sturdy old Pell Grant may be strained by the economic, social, and political forces the country faces.

“The upside for the Pell Grant is that it is forward-funded and there is a surplus of funds right now,” said Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, describing the current status of the popular and enduring federal student aid program. “The downside is that the surpluses would come nowhere near the amount we will need to meet the financial distress that a prolonged recession could cause.”

Draeger and other experts said there are an array of factors that could affect the financial needs of students and the funds available to support them. He noted that during previous economic downturns, financial aid has been strained as more people with greater need attend college. Typically, politicians then have been willing to increase funding for the popular Pell Grant, though they sometimes cut other supports or change the eligibility formula.

That, however, could all be affected by the depth of any economic downturn as well as the results of November’s election and platforms of those in power.

The demand also could be affected by enrollment levels which remain uncertain, and college costs, which, along with institutional aid, could be in flux if there is “a mad scramble for students” as colleges seek to build their freshmen classes amid the uncertainties posed by the coronavirus, Draeger said.

Draeger noted it’s hard to predict whether the Pell Grant will be adequate and whether the extra $14 billion in special COVID-19 funding for higher education will make its way to students who need support. But he said the goals for advocates of the program will remain consistent: “Our objective still needs to be to maintain funding levels for the Pell Grant and fight for inflationary increases.”

Ken Redd, senior director for research and policy analysis with the National Association of College and University Business Officers, agrees that it’s difficult to know how federal efforts to combat the effects of the coronavirus will affect the program, which provides qualifying students with up to $6,345 in annual financial support.

“Depending on the economic conditions when the pandemic passes, we may see Pell maximum awards rise to $7,000 or more to meet the increased needs of students,” said Redd, who also serves on the NACAC Board of Directors.

According to Joel Ford, a school counselor at Conner High School (KY) and a former president of the Kentucky Association for College Admission Counseling, the whole effect of the pandemic may not be felt right away. “Obviously the need for Pell and other grants becomes even more important. However, with the FAFSA using prior-prior tax information when a student files, you may not see the full impact for another year or two,” he said.

Ford said his sense is many of his high school seniors are following through with their enrollment plans, but he notes that colleagues in colleges expect a slump, especially since Kentucky has among the highest levels of unemployment claims since the pandemic began. He said he believes some students may stay closer to home or take general education courses at a community college.

An Important Role
Before this new climate brought on by the pandemic and other events took hold, there were many stories about how the Pell Grant has benefited low-income students since its creation some 50 years ago as a way to help propel more poor and working class students on the path to college.

But even prior to 2020, the boost offered by the Pell Grant had weakened. Consultants, counselors, and experts in financial aid quickly point out that the process still swamps students and families—often those who need support the most—with nettlesome paperwork. And the program is too frequently overlooked or misunderstood, and rarely provides enough support for students in need.

“What started as an ambitious attempt to pay directly for low-income students to attend college has given way to the grant as a token of assistance,” said David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at NACAC. “For most of the life of the program, the grant hasn’t even kept pace with inflation, much less college costs.”

While the grant is important, it is often disappointing. “If the Pell was meant to cover a significant percentage of college costs, those days are long gone,” Hawkins said. “It’s frustrating to see students and families who qualify find that they are still significantly short of funds. As college costs have increased, the amount of funding to public universities has either been frozen or cut in many states, reducing the buying power of the Pell.”

Karen Matthews, a counselor at Beech Grove High School (IN) and president of the Indiana Association for College Admission Counseling, said the Pell Grant’s diminishing value has changed the direction many students take.

“I’m sure it is a factor in students nationwide feeling they need to enroll in community colleges instead of heading straight to a four-year college,” she said. “I know I have seen that percentage grow over the last 15 years with graduates here.”

On its webpage devoted to information about how COVID-19 is affecting college admission, NACAC notes that students whose circumstances have changed should update the institutions where they are planning to enroll. “For those who have completed a FAFSA, and whose financial circumstances have changed considerably, we encourage you to reach out to your institution’s financial aid office…” the site notes. “Financial aid administrators are afforded a degree of professional judgment under the law for state and federal aid, as well as for institutional aid, and can work with students and families whose incomes have been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Politics
In October, before COVID-19 swept across the globe, NACAC had joined more than 60 other organizations in asking for increased Pell funding.

“The current maximum Pell Grant already covers less than one-third of the cost of attending a four-year public college—the lowest share in more than 40 years,” a letter from the group stated. “Pell Grant recipients today are more than twice as likely as other students to have student loans, and recipients who borrow graduate with over $4,500 more debt than their higher-income peers.”

Earlier this year, Congress passed an increase in fiscal year 2020 spending for the program, raising the maximum grant amount by $150 to $6,345. President Trump’s proposed fiscal year 2021 budget seeks to keep the grant award at the same level.

Jeff Levy, an educational consultant in Santa Monica, California, said it’s still woefully inadequate.

“The whole system of financial aid in this country is such a mess. It’s such a patchwork quilt of remedies. And just this one part intended for low-income families isn’t enough. Now it is over $6,000, but that is nothing.”

Snags Along the Way
Apart from problems with funding levels, the process of obtaining a Pell Grant can be challenging.

Alice Dolbow helps immigrant students with the college application process through LatinxEd, a nonprofit organization operating out of the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Education at UNC–Chapel Hill. Undocumented students and their families, who make up a big portion of her clients, are ineligible, but she said there are other issues.

“For one thing, students who are citizens but whose parents are undocumented are eligible for Pell Grants, but they often don’t know that,” she said. Also, she noted that families who have immigrated often are concerned about providing data to the government, particularly now, at a time when immigration law enforcement is more strict.

In addition, parents who are not yet citizens may inaccurately fear that seeking such grant funding will be recorded as a “public charge” on their record in the same way receiving food stamps is, diminishing their ability to gain citizenship, she said. And because their tax forms are filed using Individual Tax Identification Numbers (rather than a Social Security number), they can't use the FAFSA’s IRS Retrieval Tool and have to follow a more complex verification process, which can dissuade them from participating.

“The process is discouraging,” Dolbow said. “It amounts to proving over and over again that you are poor. There is an emotional component to that which by itself pushes people away. And the really unfortunate thing is that for many of these families, education is the reason they took the risk they did to come here. They wanted a better life for their children.”

Rachel Coates, an educational consultant who also has been involved as a volunteer with several programs in New York that are designed to help disadvantaged students, agreed with Dolbow.

“There are tons of obstacles, including being selected for FAFSA verification or even filing in the first place, since, without a Social Security number, parents have to print and sign rather than submitting online,” she said. “The students, and sometimes parents, have to get proof of non-IRS filing, which is extremely scary if they are undocumented.”

Ford said a number of students who aren’t low-income don’t participate in the Pell Grant program because they assume they aren’t eligible, although other factors may be in their favor. Other students choose not to go to college because they assume they can’t afford it when they might be eligible for sizable Pell contribution that could help.

Matthews agreed that although it has been simplified, the FAFSA itself discourages students, especially if they have to go through the verification process. She and her colleagues at Beech Grove High School (BGHS) focus on completion of the form in part just to make sure students are eligible for Pell funds.

“We present the info to all seniors, hold senior working lunches where we feed students and then float around helping them while they eat and work on the FAFSA. We also host two College Goal Sunday workshops at BGHS each year, and call to our offices individual students who say they are planning to go to college but don't have a FAFSA filed.” She also made a financial aid video and posted it on YouTube for students and parents.

Getting the Word Out (Accurately)
Cyndy McDonald, an independent educational consultant in Visalia, California, who primarily works with first-generation students, believes there isn’t enough clear, accessible information about the funding. “How many counselors look at a student’s EFC (expected family contribution) and talk to them about whether they qualify for the Pell Grant? Maybe 20 percent? If you have a $6,000 EFC or less, you are eligible for the Pell Grant, but that detail is not shared with a lot of students. I have worked with many who didn’t know that, even at the community college level. They were thrilled to learn they qualified,” she said.

One problem is that the federal system for financial aid is designed to safeguard against abuse, even though misuse of the program is rare, McDonald said. Such a mindset creates unnecessary hurdles for students who need the aid. “There are enough safeguards built into the system. I just don’t think there are that many people who are going to exploit it,” she said.

She said more clear, accurate information should be provided to students and families to encourage them to complete the FAFSA, and there should be better training and information for counselors and other professionals who work with them.

Matthews feels similarly. “Most of my students are aware that there are grants and free money out there for college, but don’t know the names of specific programs. I find that my students—and often their parents—just get overwhelmed,” she said.

For Coates, her work helping one family navigate the financial aid application process served as a stark reminder of the challenges.

The talented young woman was born here and is a US citizen, although her parents are undocumented, and she is the first in the family to attend college. “I made multiple trips to their house with a printer and a Spanish-speaking colleague just to get things done, printed, and submitted—and to check on their comfort level with any personal risk to them,” said Coates.

The student now is attending a private college on a full scholarship and Pell Grant.


For some time, NACAC has been working to improve opportunities for financial aid from the federal government, including through the Pell Grant.

In October, for instance, the association joined a group of more than 60 organizations calling for full funding and reserve monies for the Pell Grant program. Eventually, the 2020 fiscal year budget approved by Congress raised the maximum award to $6,345.

The 2021 fiscal year budget proposal put forward by the Trump administration calls for no increase in funding levels. NACAC officials believe the Pell Grant it is not nearly meeting the needs of students at its current level and consistently has fallen behind the rate of inflation since the program was enacted nearly 50 years ago.

“We work hard to make sure the Pell Grant continues to be a valuable tool for students to get to college, but also continually strive to raise awareness about its inadequacies,” said David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at NACAC. “There is a recognition of that, but not enough has been done.”

More information about how COVID-19 is affecting the admission process, and specifically financial aid, is available on the NACAC website. The association’s coronavirus resource page also provides links to information from other organizations concerned about the impact of the pandemic on higher education

Jim Paterson is a writer and former school counselor living in Lewes, Delaware.

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