Making Pell Grants Work

In a Senate hearing last week, Andrew Gillen of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity offered some helpful thoughts on the current debate surrounding Pell Grants. Admittedly, hardcore policy wonks have likely reviewed his testimony by now, but his words are worth a second look. (Click here for the PDF.)

Recent Pell Grant reform efforts, including those promoted by President Obama, have focused on making the program an entitlement, which would tie annual grant amounts to inflation plus one percentage point and eliminate the need for regular debates about funding. But Gillen, arguing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, asserted that these efforts overemphasize the need to boost maximum grant amounts and ignore the more pressing imperative of increasing the number of students who receive grants.

“The biggest issue with Pell Grants right now is not that the maximum award isn’t high enough,” he stated, “but that many eligible students do not receive a grant, and even when they do, it is not for the maximum amount.” He added that during the 2007-2008 school year roughly 40 percent of students at or below the poverty line did not receive a Pell Grant; those who did were on average awarded only $3,000. Since 1990, he said, the average award has not exceeded 50 percent of the authorized maximum.

Gillen has a point, and perhaps the Pell Grant program needs further tweaks. But he is also right to admit that “the Pell Grant program is currently the best method of providing financial aid to students, and increased funding of the program is certainly to be applauded.”

Daniel Fromson

Daniel Fromson is an editorial intern at the Washington Monthly. He previously interned at Harper's Magazine, and he has written for Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal.