By Hazel Trice Edney
(Trice Edney Wire) – A recent increase in the Pell Grant awarded to low-income college students who need financial help paying for their tuition or other educational needs will not be going to the nearly one million students who choose career and proprietary schools.
That’s because the Build Back Better bill that passed the House in late November, by a vote of 220-213, mostly along party lines, has a one-line provision tucked away on page 76 of the 2,135 page bill that excludes underserved college students who choose career or proprietary colleges for their academic studies from the $550 increase in Pell benefits.
“We need to do more to bring accountability to all sectors of higher education; however, punishing students does not accomplish that objective. Any accountability rules should be focused on institutions, not students,” said a letter signed by 13 Democrats encouraging a change in the bill that would allow the additional students to receive the increase. “Financial aid professionals agree this is not the right policy approach.”
The Pell Grant program, which dates back a half century, has been among the strongest support to expanding access for low-income students, which largely include African-American and other students of color. Some go as far as describing the Pell Grants as the “Cornerstone of African-American Higher Education.” More than 6 million low-income undergraduate students receive Pell Grants every year.
This new proposal, if left in by the Senate, which is now negotiating the bill, puts the legacy of Pell Grants at risk. Moreover, it appears contrary to the principles of the Build Back Better bill to support low income people who may seek the less costly and convenient career colleges. A White House description of the bill says it aims to “expand access to affordable, high-quality education beyond high school.”
The following are more details of how the legislation would impact students and states:
• Some states are big losers with this new provision. Statistical data from the Department of Education confirms that many states are disproportionately harmed by the proposal, including West Virginia and Arizona. For example with 120,000 Arizona students choosing proprietary colleges for their schooling every year, the state is going to lose approximately $66 million each year.
• The House proposal will exclude a significant number of low-income and students of color. The Pell Grant program is particularly important for Black students, as roughly 58 percent of African-American, 47 percent of Hispanic students receive Pell grants. Approximately 70 percent of all Pell Grant funding goes to students whose family income is below $30,000, and 95 percent goes to students with family incomes below $60,000.
• While Congress excludes these career college students, Congressional staff continue to receive generous college debt repayment benefits. Both the House and Senate offer very generous college repayment programs. Recently, the Congress capped the tuition assistance program at $60,000 for House staff members and $40,000, for Senate staff over their Capitol Hill career. With House staff receiving up to $10,000 a year in college tuition repayment, the annual benefit can be larger than what Pell Grant recipients’ receive.
The controversy over the Pell is slowing growing into yet another fight on Capitol Hill as for-profit colleges discover the omission.
Democrats “clearly hoped they would be able to slip this in and nobody would notice, and the process would move so quickly that nothing could be done about it. Of course that hasn’t been the case,” Politico quotes Jason Altmire. Altmire is a former Democratic congressman who is now president and CEO of Career Education Colleges and Universities, the main trade association for career colleges. Altmire indicated that he believes the move could also dissuade students from going to for-profit schools necessary for their career.
Thirteen House Democrats had sent a letter to Democratic leaders urging them to rescind the proposal and make for-profit college students eligible for the Pell increase.
The letter states, “The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators also opposes this proposal and believes it would add an unprecedented and overly complicated administrative burden for schools and students. Congress has never passed legislation creating this type of distinction in the Pell Grant program. We urge you not to break from that bipartisan tradition and hope you will ensure that all low income students are eligible for the expanded Pell Grant.”
The 13 lawmakers who signed on the letter, led by Al Lawson (D-Fla.) and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas); include Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.); Jim Costa (D-Calif.); Ted Deutch (D-Fla.); Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.); Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.); Darren Soto (D-Fla.); Troy A. Carter, Sr. (D-La.); Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.); Tom O’Halloran (D-Ariz.); Thomas Suozzi (D-N.Y.); and Congress Elaine Luria, (D-Va.).