Forgiving Student Loans Isn't Enough — Congress Must Double Pell Grants

By Adzua Agyapon
Students pull a mock “ball & chain” representing outstanding student debt at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri.

We must make higher education more affordable if we want to undo some of the damage the pandemic wrought on college access and degree attainment. Forgiving existing student loan debt, while an important step, is not enough. College-bound students shouldn’t be forced to take on onerous financial burdens in the first place.

That’s why Congress should double the Pell Grant in 2021. President Biden supported this proposal during his campaign last year, but the current federal plan includes only a $400 annual increase. That’s a start, but it’s not enough. By increasing the maximum Pell Grant award to over $12,000, double what it is now, Congress can make a dent in the college affordability crisis and help stem the long-term effects of the pandemic for millions of Americans.

We already know that a college degree is a proven driver of economic well-being and social mobility. Unfortunately, those who stand to gain the most from a college degree — students from low-income backgrounds, who are disproportionately Black and Latino — have also borne the greatest brunt of the pandemic. While college enrollment rates dropped across the board in fall 2020, enrollment for graduates of low-income high schools fell by 10.7 percent, compared to just 4.6 percent for graduates of high-income high schools.

At KIPP Public Schools, our year-over-year college enrollment dropped 16 percent in 2020 — the largest drop we’ve ever had in our nearly 30-year history. Many students told us that they have to stay home and work to support family members who lost their income. Others shared that they were counting on working on- or off-campus jobs to help pay for college, and when those jobs dried up, so did their chance of affording tuition. Over and over again, affordability is the theme that’s keeping these students from college.

For many of our students, the bipartisan Pell Grant program is a key component of their college cost calculations. Created in 1972, this need-based federal aid program provides crucial college funding for approximately seven million students each year, or about one-third of all college undergraduates in America. In 1975-76, the maximum Pell award covered more than three-quarters of the average cost of attendance for a four-year public university, including tuition, fees, and living expenses.

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Image credit: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty