In the next two months, Congress has to make a choice: It can choose to invest in students and our future workforce, or it can choose to let the annual increase to Pell Grants lapse, increasing the burden of college on low-income students.
Pell Grants are the foundation of our national investment in higher education, giving low-income students the opportunity to go to and graduate from college and pursue careers that increasingly require a post-secondary education. This year, Pell Grants will help over 7.5 million students — including one-third of all white students, two-thirds of all black students, and half of all Latino students — continue their education after high school.
For the last six years, Pell Grants have been annually increased to keep up with inflation. This adjustment has played a critical role in preventing further decline of the historically low purchasing power of the current Pell Grant. If Congress fails to continue the adjustment, Pell students would see the buying power of their awards reduced drastically. In 10 years, with the award frozen at its current amount, the grant will cover only one-fifth of college costs.
As president of Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pa., I see firsthand the power and importance of Pell Grants. We are Pennsylvania’s most affordable college. Forty percent of our students report that, but for us, they would have no higher education opportunity. Our college distributes more than $45 million in financial aid annually. Fifty-three percent of our credit students receive some form of financial aid; 47 percent receive Pell Grants. By ending the annual inflation adjustment, this will severely curtail critical support to students who otherwise would not have the opportunity to attend college. In fact, our research shows that our Pell students retain at a higher rate than our non-Pell students, demonstrating that Pell is a good investment in our students and their success.
Pell is particularly critical for community college students, including the nontraditional students who are returning to school for a new certificate or other form of retraining. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in her address to leaders of our nation’s community colleges at the National Community College Legislative Summit in February that community colleges are “absolutely essential engines of workforce and economic development — locally and regionally.” Clearly, supporting our students is vital for our country’s economic success.
Congress made an important investment in fiscal year 2017 by restoring access to Pell Grants year-round. But that step alone is not enough. Without action to maintain the inflation adjustment, students will face a decline in their aid. This week, I sent a letter to leaders of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives (sharing copies with our Pennsylvania delegation), urging them to continue the annual indexation for Pell Grants with the same determination and bipartisan support they showed in restoring year-round Pell.
Keeping Pell Grants adjusted to inflation is the No. 1 priority among my presidential colleagues in community colleges, and we encourage you to join us in addressing this important issue. Pell Grants are perhaps the greatest investment our nation can make in its future. I am blessed to see the impact of these grants daily, changing the trajectory of our students’ lives, the lives of their families, and our community.
Dr. Mark H. Erickson is president of Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania, with campuses in Bethlehem, Southside Bethlehem and Monroe County serving more than 30,000 students each year from 53 counties, 48 countries and 25 states.
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