As College Cost Worries Grow, Campaign Urges Doubling Pell Grants

Eric Tegethoff | Public News Service
About half of student parents and first-generation students are Pell Grant recipients. Photo Credit: Yurii Kibalnik / Adobe Stock)

EUGENE, Ore. – Pell Grants are a lifeline for many students attending college, but the federal aid covers far less than it used to. That’s why student groups, colleges and universities are urging Congress to pass a measure to double the amount allotted to students.

The maximum Pell Grant for this academic year is about $6,500. Jim Brooks, director of student financial aid and scholarships at the University of Oregon, said many have criticized the grants for not keeping up with the cost of college.

“If you think about $13,000 in cost of attendance, that would have a big impact on students everywhere,” he said. “So personally, as someone who’s been a Pell recipient and has worked with lots of students at more than one institution who are Pell eligible, I think doubling Pell would be incredible.”

In the past, a Pell Grant covered as much as three-quarters of the cost of attending a public university. Today, it covers less than a third. About 90% of Pell Grants go to families with incomes of less than $50,000. More than $290 million in Pell Grants came to Oregon in the last disbursement.

Nearly 7 million students, or about 40%, are Pell Grant recipients, but they’re still more likely to graduate with debt than other students. Brooks said folks are always concerned about the cost of college, and the pandemic has deepened those concerns.

“We have certainly seen more families who’ve been financially impacted by the pandemic, in one way or the other,” he said, “whether it’s a parent losing income or a parent being laid off for a while, losing their job completely because a business is closing.”

Brooks said he sees Pell Grants as foundational – for families, and for students’ future success.

“This is money they’re going to have that they can use for educational costs and they aren’t going to have to repay it,” he said. “So, they reap the benefits of their education; that basically opens up job markets for them and it opens things up that they wouldn’t have if they were not able to earn a college degree.”

The University of Oregon also has a program called Pathway Oregon, which helps Pell Grant-eligible students pay tuition and other fees through a combination of federal, state and university funds. Nearly 1,200 organizations, including 900 colleges and universities, signed a letter to Congress in March urging members to double the maximum Pell Grant amount.

Support for this reporting was provided by Lumina Foundation.