When I was an undergraduate student at Detroit’s Wayne State University, I had no idea who Claiborne Pell was or how the six-term senator from Rhode Island set in motion funding that would help me and tens of millions of students finance dreams of a college education.
I’m a beneficiary of both Pell Grants and a Detroit Regional Chamber Compact Scholarship (what’s now called Detroit Promise). I’ll never forget when we got the call one evening inquiring if we were still interested in the tuition scholarship. At the time, my parents’ tears of joy and relief made 17-year-old me laugh, but now I understand the weight of the financial burden that lifted was no laughing matter. Later in my academic career, receiving a Pell Grant from The Office of Student Financial Aid was right up there with winning a modest lottery. Without those two programs, I’m not sure how I would have gone on to earn a postsecondary degree.
I knew the funds would be accepted by the university without issue and had been given a little breathing room to work on the next scholarship or grant acquisition to cover books, supplies and transportation needs.
The grant is named after Sen. Pell, a native New Yorker who used his tenure to make groundbreaking contributions in the federal government’s support of environmental protection, the arts and, of course, higher education. In his role as chairman of the Senate subcommittee on education, Pell authored major legislation bolstering federal financial assistance to elementary and secondary schools and expanding federal education programs.
The New York Times reports that it was after winning his first Senate term in 1960 that Pell sponsored the preparation of a two-volume statistical report that became the basis of the bill creating the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, or BEOG, which provided financial aid to attend college. Asked in a 1996 interview how the programs came to be known as the Pell Grants, he offered, “Because there was no Senator Beog!” The name was officially changed to Pell Grants in 1980 by his colleagues in Congress. This year marks the 50th anniversary of their existence.
When Pell died in 2009, President Biden said, “The doors of college have been opened to millions of Americans and will continue to be opened to millions more. That is a legacy that will live on for generations to come.”
What made the Pell Grant so desirable and truly remarkable to me was its no-strings-attached nature. The funds didn’t need to be paid back. You didn’t have to compete and beat out any other students, who also likely needed the support, or share a deeply personal narrative for judgment to earn selection. The grant helped change the trajectory of my life and gave me support in chasing my dreams. I wouldn’t have the career and corresponding stability I enjoy now if I didn’t have the credentials financed by Pell and Compact Scholarships.
But it isn’t enough.
As we celebrate the golden anniversary of the grant program, more can be done. Pell remains the most effective federal investment in college affordability, but the current award covers less than one-third of the average cost of attending a four-year public college — the lowest share in more than 40 years. Millions of students are in critical need of additional grant aid to pay for college. Doubling the Pell Grant would ensure access and affordability for all students to pursue higher education.
Dr. Montserrat Fuentes, president of St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, recently shared an analysis from The Gender Equity Policy Institute of the Congressional proposals. It found doubling Pell would decrease debt for all students pursuing bachelor’s degrees by about 79%. It would particularly benefit students of color, helping to reduce debt for Black (80%), Latino (83%), and Native American (85%) students.
As I think about my time at Wayne State and how lucky I was to have support in making it to graduation, I can’t help but consider all the students who could have been by my side if they too had been able to rely on sufficient funding to make the dream a reality.
Tracey Pearson is a communications officer at The Kresge Foundation supporting its Education and American City programs.