Stories

Pell Grant loses its punch against the rising cost of college

Adapted from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; Chart: Axios Visuals

Pell Grants are intended to give low-income students a shot at a college education, but the funds that students receive only cover a fraction of rising present-day college tuitions and fees.

The big picture: The federal subsidies are administered by the Department of Education, originally created by the Higher Education Act of 1965. In 1975, the largest Pell Grant award offset 79% of the average cost of attendance to a four-year public university. That coverage shrank to 29% of tuition in 2017, data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows.

  • The average cost for an in-state student at a four-year public school, plus room and board was $21,370 annually as of 2018, according to an analysis from the nonprofit College Board.
  • The maximum Pell Grant award for students was raised from $6,095 in the 2018-2019 school year to $6,195 for 2019-2020.
  • Typical students who receive the award are from the lowest income bracket and only eligible if they submit their family income information via Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This became available for the 2020-2021 school year in October.

The bottom line: The Pell Grant program is the largest source of federal aid, totaling $28.7 billion in fiscal year 2018 to help 7.1 million students.

  • Democrats and Republicans, including those running for president in 2020, have long agreed that more students should have access to the program and receive larger grant sums. The debate lies, however, in who to expand grants to, and how to appropriate them.

Go deeper: Congress considers granting more access to education in prison