Why any discussions of college affordability need to start with Pell Grants

image-20160729-25643-134ilqThere has been a good amount of discussion on the presidential campaign trail about the issue of college affordability and student loan debt.  I have written in previous blog posts about some of Hillary Clinton’s proposals, as well as those of Martin O’Malley.  This week, I wrote a column for the website The Conversation, where I described why any discussion of college affordability needs to start with the role of Pell Grants, the foundation of the federal government’s student aid programs.

Duncan’s higher education legacy

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Courtesy U.S. Department of Education

As Arne Duncan, one of the longest-serving Secretaries of Education, announces his forthcoming resignation, observers are starting to reflect on his impact on education policy in the nation. Duncan will most likely be remembered more for his focus on K-12 education, not surprising given his background as the superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, third-largest school district in the country. In that domain, he was known mostly for extending the Bush-era focus on accountability via testing. And it was that focus that led him to be reviled by many in traditional K-12 schools. As education historian and commentator Diane Ravitch wrote in the Huffington Post recently, “It will take years to recover from the damage that Arne Duncan’s policies have inflicted on public education.”

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Happy 40th birthday, Pell Grants

Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI, 1961 to 1997)
Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI, 1961 to 1997)

In 1972, Congress passed and President Richard Nixon signed into law the 1972 amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965.  A key aspect of the legislation was the creation of the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant program (BEOG), later renamed the Pell Grant program in 1980 after the late Senator Claiborne Pell.  Senator Pell was the key champion for the creation of the BEOG program.

Since the passage of this legislation, tens of millions of undergraduate college students have received a total of over $280 billion in Pell Grants from the federal government.  Pell Grants are awarded based only on the financial need of the student and/or her family, and they are designed to be the foundation grant for promoting college access.  This school year alone, almost 10 million students will receive over $35 billion in Pell Grants.

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