California educators want Congress to double the maximum Pell Grant award

UCLA's Royce Hall in the pre-pandemic era. (FERMIN LEAL/EDSOURCE TODAY)

With Democrats now controlling Congress and the White House, higher education leaders in California are optimistic that the federal government could soon expand the amount of financial aid available to students.

Administrators and student governments at California’s public colleges and universities are pushing to increase the maximum amount of Pell Grant awards, the main source of federal financial aid available to low- and middle-income students, from about $6,500 to $13,000. The grants are awarded each year to millions of college students across the country who have financial need.

The UC president’s office and the UC Student Association recently launched a joint campaign to urge Congress to double the maximum amount of the Pell Grant. They were also part of a coalition of California higher education leaders who wrote a letter to California’s congressional delegation to ask them to prioritize that proposal. The systemwide chancellors for the 23-campus California State University and the state’s 116 community colleges also signed onto that letter, as did the student governments for those systems.

When he was running for president, Joe Biden’s campaign platform included doubling the maximum award. Biden reiterated that commitment after winning the election. The nominee for undersecretary of education, James Kvaal, has also previously advocated for doubling the Pell, urging Congress to do so during 2019 testimony. Kvaal, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, an organization that promotes greater affordability in higher education, must still be confirmed by the Senate.

Image via iStock

Any action to expand the Pell Grant would require congressional approval. If the Pell Grant award is doubled, it would be a massive boost to hundreds of thousands of students in California who are increasingly in need of more help to pay for non-tuition costs like housing and food — often referred to as basic needs. Experts also predict that the percentage of Pell Grant eligible students will likely increase post-pandemic as a result of many families losing wages.

At the nine undergraduate UC campuses, about a third of students are Pell recipients — or about 78,000 total students. Across the state’s 116 community colleges, about 420,000 receive those awards, or about 20% of students. And at CSU’s 23 campuses, about 230,000 students receive Pell Grants, nearly half of the system’s total undergraduate enrollment.

CSU is “absolutely” in support of expanding the Pell Grant, said Luoluo Hong, CSU’s associate vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment management. Hong noted that CSU serves many first-generation and low-income students and pointed out that the current maximum Pell Grant does not cover 100% of tuition and fees at any CSU campus.

“And this does not even begin to yet address total costs of attendance,” Hong said. “For students in California, where the cost of living is disproportionately higher than elsewhere in the country, this means that each and every extra dollar of Pell Grant aid can help ensure housing, food, transportation and other costs of attendance can be met.”

At the University of California, leaders for years have been strategizing to find new ways to help students afford their basic needs. With Democrats now in control in Washington, UC determined that “the next iteration of trying to get more funding for basic needs” should be by advocating for an expansion of the Pell Grant, said Crystal Martinez, director of education in UC’s Office of Federal Government Relations.

“This would be a vehicle to really change the lives of our lowest-income students,” Martinez said in an interview. She added that she expects Congress may act on the issue through a budget reconciliation process, which would require only a simple majority of 51 votes in the Senate.

Rakia White, a junior at UC Berkeley, relies on the Pell Grant to pay for college, but it only goes so far. To afford her degree, she still had to work 60 hours a week at three jobs before the Covid-19 pandemic: as concierge at a hotel, as a nanny and as a receptionist in the university’s counseling department. She lost those jobs when the pandemic hit.

UC Berkeley is one of 10 UC campuses expected to resume in-person classes for the fall 2021 semester. (Photo courtesy of

White is majoring in sociology and African American studies. With more Pell Grant money, she could work fewer hours, spend more time on her schoolwork and not have to take out loans.

Instead, she has had to take on debt, something that has not only caused her stress, but has also made her unsure about her post-graduation plans. White wants to go straight to graduate school for social work, but she’s not certain that it will be financially feasible to do so. She may need to take time to work and pay off her debts before pursuing that degree.

“It’s discouraging because you do all this work to get this degree, and then you get out of school, and you have to do all this work to pay all of it back. But if the Pell Grant was doubled, it would alleviate a lot of that,” she said.

A first-generation college student, Dalila Lara has also worked multiple jobs while studying biological anthropology at UC Santa Barbara.

Lara is part of UC Santa Barbara’s Smithsonian Scholars Program. As part of the program, she was able to conduct research one summer on California’s Channel Islands. With more financial aid from the Pell Grant program, Lara said she likely would’ve chosen a more intensive major — biology — and had time to pursue more research opportunities like the one on the Channel Islands.

“I think about if I would have had more time to explore research, what would that have led me to?” she said.

It’s not unusual for Pell Grant recipients like Lara and White to have to find additional ways to pay for college. The Pell Grant has lost significant purchasing power over time. In 1980, a maximum grant covered 77% of the average cost of a public four-year college, according to UC. Now, it covers just 28% of that cost.

The maximum amount of the Pell Grant has increased over the years but has been outpaced by inflation and rising costs associated with attending college, such as housing costs.

The campus of Cal State Northridge in Los Angeles County.

As a result, the financial aid awards that are currently available are “becoming insufficient” for many of the 2.1 million students attending California’s community colleges, said Andrew Nickens, vice president of legislative affairs for the Student Senate for California Community Colleges.

Nickens said enrollment has declined significantly across many community colleges this academic year with some colleges losing 20% or more of their students.

“It is clearly that students simply do not have the resources they need to access higher education. President Biden and the 117th Congress have the ability to increase access, to ensure that students do indeed have the resources they need,” Nickens told a news conference addressing the issue.

In the 2021-22 academic year, the maximum amount of the Pell Grant will be about $6,500. Under UC’s proposal, the maximum award amount would then increase by about $2,000 over the subsequent three years until it reaches $13,000 for the 2024-25 academic year. The proposal also calls for the award to have an automatic inflation adjustment so that it doesn’t again lose purchasing power over time.

Doubling the maximum award could make it possible for low-income students to get a degree at UC without taking on any debt.

The university has explored creating a path to a debt-free UC degree, but accomplishing that “is dependent on additional resources,” said Shawn Brick, UC’s executive director of student financial support.

UC estimates the average cost of living on campus to be about $35,000. Currently, low-income students can get enough grant awards to cover about $25,000 of those costs, between Pell Grant awards, UC institutional grants and Cal Grants, state-funded financial aid awards.

If low-income students were to receive an additional $6,000 or $7,000 from annual Pell Grants, that would cover most of the difference. They could then work part-time to pay off the remaining costs without needing to take out loans.

“Any increases to the federal Pell Grant certainly would be key to making a debt-free path a reality for UC students, and doubling the Pell Grant I think would make that very possible,” Brick said in an interview.

The push to expand the Pell Grant is coming at an especially crucial moment because of the coronavirus pandemic. With many adults and families reporting job or wage loss as a result of the pandemic, it’s “quite possible” that more students across the country will be eligible for Pell Grants in the coming years, said Debbie Cochrane, executive vice president of the Institute for College Access and Success.

Hong, the CSU associate vice chancellor, said CSU anticipates that the percentage of students who are Pell-eligible “will grow in the coming years” given that the Covid-19 pandemic has “had a disproportionately greater negative impact on those who are already in the lowest tiers of income.”

Meanwhile, UC has seen an uptick in the number of families who have asked the university to review their financial aid eligibility, Brick said. “That is evidence, I would say, of changing fortunes in terms of their own family incomes,” he said.

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