Pell Grant program turns 50 as advocates seek to double it

Pell Grant recipients speak at an event organized by The Institute for College Access & Success – an education advocacy organization – at the U.S. Capitol to commemorate its 50 years. Photo courtesy of Angelo Gomez.

Amid increasing tuition costs and advocates calling for aid increases, the federal Pell Grant program has made it possible for over 80 million Americans — 34 percent of all undergraduate students — to access higher education. It started providing aid to those with financial need in 1972.

Recipients and proponents of the grant celebrated its 50th anniversary on June 23.

Forty-eight percent of FIU’s undergraduate students receive the Pell grant. More than 220,000 students in South Florida alone benefitted from it in the 2019-20 school year. The grant awards a maximum of $6,496 to each recipient annually. 

“Today, let us recommit to expanding access to quality education so that all of our citizens are empowered to achieve their professional goals and contribute to the success and prosperity of America,” said President Biden in a statement commemorating the day.

Almost 90 percent of Pell Grant recipients come from families that earn less than $50,000.

In his State of the Union speech earlier this year, Biden called on Congress to double the amount awarded under the Pell grant program and his 2023 budget proposes a steady increase, with it doubling by 2029.

“Together, these investments will make it possible for more students from all backgrounds to pursue a post-secondary education that prepares them for quality employment and helps our nation compete in the 21st century,” Biden said.

Biden allocated $24.6 billion to federal student aid and increased the maximum Pell Grant by $400 in a bill he signed this year. His 2023-24 proposal increases it by $2,175.

Pell Grant recipient Andrés Velasco, an FIU student studying history, said the grant made it possible for him to attend college without taking out large amounts of student loans.

“Coming from a lower-income Hispanic family of seven, there were no funds available to go towards my education,” said Velasco. “I remember being told by my father that he would try his hardest to help me with day-to-day expenses but wouldn’t be able to contribute a single cent towards my education because of our financial situation.”

Velasco said that while the $6,000 he receives was enough for him to attend school locally, he thinks it needs to be increased for students who seek to pursue undergraduate education out of state. 

College tuition costs have skyrocketed since the 1970s when former President Richard Nixon signed the Education Amendments Act into law which established the Pell Grant.

The Florida resident cost of attendance at FIU for the 2021-22 school year is estimated at $17,712.

The grant initially covered over 75 percent of the cost of attendance at a four-year public college in the U.S., but today it covers only 28 percent of tuition on average, as reported by the Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Velasco contends that the federal government should be responsible for helping its citizens further their education.

“Our country is filled with brilliant individuals who are attempting to not only better their lives, but better their country,” said Velasco. “I believe there should be more attempts to make public universities more affordable for the average person, whether that may be through regulating the average cost increase per year or through more federal grants to students truly in need.”

Angelo Gomez, an FIU alumnus interning in Washington, D.C., attended an event organized by The Institute for College Access & Success – an education advocacy organization – at the U.S. Capitol to commemorate its 50 years.

“It was inspiring being alongside Pell grant recipients who are interning on Capitol Hill and were able to get an education due to the grant that made education accessible to them,” said Gomez.

A student panel at the event featured stories from current recipients of the grant. In some cases, Gomez pointed out, the grant covered the full cost of tuition.

“It meant [these students] didn’t have to work full-time and instead could focus more on student organizations and be more involved on campus. It was inspiring to hear from champions of the Pell grant,” he added. “It definitely made me feel grateful.”

Maya Washburn is an SFMN DC bureau summer correspondent studying digital journalism with a concentration in criminal justice at the FIU Honors College. Her primary focus is reporting on previously untold stories, with her writing often involving investigations, underrepresented issues, crime, mental health, education, politics and more.