NEWPORT, RI – Half a century after then-U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI) helped pass a law known as the Education Amendments Act of 1972, his key provision of that law, now known as Pell Grants, has provided a pathway to paying for higher education for over 80 million students nationwide.
The Pell Grant is need-based financial aid that offers up to $6,895 in federal assistance to help students of all backgrounds pursue a college degree. The money does not have to be paid back. To apply for Pell Grants, students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Last year, 23,752 Rhode Island students received more than $96.9 million in Pell Grants, and nationwide over 6.35 million American students utilized $26.45 billion in Pell Grant funding to help pay for college.
To help commemorate the Pell Grant’s golden anniversary and reflect on Senator Pell’s enduring legacy, U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) and U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel A. Cardona headlined a special program today at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center with President Dr. Kelli J. Armstrong and other featured guests, including U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and U.S. Representative David Cicilline (RI-01), and urged federal action to double Pell Grants and ensure the doors of higher education remain open to students for the next fifty years.
The event was co-led by the Rhode Island Student Loan Authority (RISLA) and the Rhode Island Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (RIASFAA) and featured panel discussions with Rhode Islanders who are direct beneficiaries of Pell Grants, and who were able to pursue opportunities and afford college, thanks to federal financial aid.
“Senator Pell understood that talented students with limited means have unlimited potential. He refused to let driven students be priced out of the opportunity to earn their degree. So he created these grants as a tool for upward economic mobility. Pell Grants empower students to uplift themselves, their families, communities, and the nation. It was a generational change that helped millions of young people become the first in their family to go to college and punch their ticket to the middle-class,” said Senator Reed, who succeeded Pell in the U.S. Senate. “The Pell Grant is about expanding opportunity through higher education. It is about helping hardworking students afford to pay for college and building for the future. Fifty years in, it’s time to double down on that success by doubling the power of Pell grants to uplift future generations and ensure they too can afford to pay for college, reach their potential, and strengthen our communities and the economy.”
“Pell grants represent the promise of America. It’s the promise that it shouldn’t matter what race or gender you are, what zip code you grew up in, or where your family came from…if you work hard, you can achieve your dreams. It’s up to all of us to keep the promise of Pell and the promise of America alive for generations to come,” said Secretary Cardona.
In its 2023 fiscal year budget proposal, the Biden Administration proposed boosting financial aid relief for students across higher education and doubling the maximum Pell Grant award to $13,000 by 2029, with an immediate lift of $1,775 for students in the 2023-24 school year, which would bring the maximum Pell Grant to $8,670.
Reed, Whitehouse, and Cicilline are all cosponsors of the bicameral Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act, which would double the Pell Grant award, index the award to inflation, and make other changes to expand the award for working students and families.
“For 50 years now, Rhode Islanders have been able to achieve their dreams of pursuing a higher education because of Pell Grants — the noble legacy of our own Senator Pell. I’m glad to mark this occasion by redoubling our efforts to strengthen this landmark program,” said Senator Whitehouse.
“Pell Grants have helped millions of students to pursue higher education. To keep the power of this program and use it to help even more students, we need to double the Pell Grant and index it to inflation so that these opportunities are available for generations to come,” said Congressman Cicilline. “Higher education cannot be a privilege for only the wealthiest students, but accessible to everyone who has the drive, the ability, and vision to pursue their goals. Access to higher education is one of the single greatest predictors of success later in life. Among millennials, someone with a college degree, as opposed to a high school diploma, will be paid 63 percent more in annual income, will be three times more likely to have a job, and will be four times less likely to live in poverty. To create a truly equitable economy and country, we need to ensure that everyone can pursue a college degree should they want to.”
Nationwide, about 34 percent of undergraduate students receive a Pell Grant, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And today, about 68 percent of Pell Grant funds go toward paying tuition at public schools.
“Senator Pell’s legislation to establish the Pell Grant was revolutionary and changed the landscape of higher education. By moving funding from institutions to individuals, Pell Grants ensured that low-income students received much-needed resources to help pay for a college education,” said Dr. Kelli Armstrong, President of Salve Regina University.
Originally known as the ‘Basic Educational Opportunity Grant,’ the award was renamed in 1980 in honor of Senator Pell. Today, it is the largest federal grant program offered by the U.S. Department of Education to undergraduate students.
Reed noted that in 1972, before the Pell Grant, less than half of high school graduates immediately enrolled in college. Today, two-thirds make that transition, resulting in a more educated citizenry and workforce than America had without the Pell grant.