Pell Grants are Getting Their Due in the 2020 Campaign

Donald E. Heller

Just as it did in the 2016 election, college affordability has become a critical issue in the 2020 election.

One key difference, however, is unlike in the 2016 election, which was largely devoid of any talk about increasing Pell Grants for students from low- and moderate-income families to pay for college, this time around Pell Grants are part of the discussion.

Leading Democratic candidates – Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and, most recently, Joe Biden – have floated their own proposals. Biden’s plan – released in October 2019 – distinguishes itself from those of his competitors, however, by recognizing the important role that Pell Grants do and should play in paying for higher education.

Biden has proposed to double the maximum Pell Grant award from its current level of US$6,195 per year to $13,000 annually. This would be an important first step and a well-targeted approach to addressing the college financing needs of low- and moderate-income students. It is also a much more effective approach, in my view, than those proposed by his competitors of simply making college free for everyone – a step that would waste billions by forcing taxpayers to subsidize the college education of students from wealthy families.

What are Pell Grants?

Pell Grants were created in the 1972 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. This academic year they provide grant aid of up to $6,195 to students from the neediest families. These grants, which used to cover almost the entire cost of a college education for poor students, today cover less than a third.

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