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Committee Explores Proposals to Strengthen Pell Grant Program to Better Support Low-Income Students

The Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, chaired by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), today held a hearing entitled, “Keeping College Within Reach: Strengthening the Pell Grant Program for Future Generations.” The 11th hearing in a series designed to prepare for the Higher Education Act reauthorization, today’s discussion provided members an opportunity to examine proposals to improve the Pell Grant program.

In her opening remarks, Rep. Foxx said, “Pell is one of the federal government’s largest education expenditures, costing taxpayers about $30 billion a year. As with every federal program, especially one with such a hefty price tag, Washington leaders have a responsibility to ensure the Pell Grant program is effective.”

Rep. Foxx noted concerns from the higher education community and congressional leaders that recent changes to Pell eligibility and grant award amounts threaten the program's future. “We all want to make sure [the Pell Grant program] meets its target of supporting low-income students who wish to earn a college degree.  However, we must also be honest about the challenges facing the program and work together in good faith to enact smart policy changes that will help get the program back on stable ground.”

During the hearing, witnesses discussed a number of proposed reforms that could refocus the Pell Grant program to better serve the neediest students and help put the program on a more sustainable path.

Dr. Jenna Robinson, Director of Outreach for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, recommended increasing eligibility requirements in an effort to control the growing number of Pell recipients and reduce costs. “Since the creation of the Pell program, participation has grown more than 4500 percent. Much of that growth consists of middle-income students…In order to use federal dollars effectively, eligibility requirements should be tightened so that only very low-income students receive Pell grants,” Dr. Robinson said.

Dr. Robinson also stressed the importance of increasing accountability in the Pell Grant program. “To further reduce costs, we must ensure that students are using Pell grants as intended. Reports indicate that some students obtain Pell grant funds but do not complete their courses. Thus, colleges and universities should place limits on students’ Pell grant money.” Dr. Robinson cited several accountability reforms implemented by North Carolina’s Central Piedmont Community College, including policies designed to track Pell recipients’ academic progress to ensure students are completing courses.

National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators president Justin Draeger suggested strengthening the Pell Grant program through a “Pell Well” structure. “Under a Pell Well model, students would have continuous access to Pell funds until they attain a degree or exhaust eligibility. This concept facilitates and incentivizes retention and graduation along with affordability since it would deter unnecessary borrowing. The students who borrow most frequently tend to be low-income and working, according to NCES. Pell Well introduces a much-needed element of predictability, affordability, and personal flexibility into the federal student aid process,” Mr. Draeger explained.

Mr. Richard Heath, Director of Student Financial Services at Anne Arundel Community College, echoed calls for increased flexibility and accountability in the Pell Grant program. “Currently if a student is eligible for the maximum Pell Grant but has registered for 9 credits he receives the same amount of Pell as the student who registers for 11 credits… This penalizes the non-traditional student who often is not able to attend full time. More flexibility in this area would be a win-win. For the non-traditional student, they would be pursuing their educational goals at a pace that fits their other time commitments and the taxpayer would not be paying for credits that are not yet earned.”

To learn more about today’s hearing, or to watch an archived webcast, visit www.edworkforce.house.gov/hearings.

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