It’s Time to Meaningfully Expand the Pell Grant

Education Landscape

Without question, higher education opens doors of opportunity. Americans with some form of college degree typically earn significantly more in their lifetime than those without a degree.

The median lifetime earnings of an American with a bachelor’s degree is $2.8 million; for an associate degree, it’s $2 million. In contrast, those with a high school diploma have $1.6 million in median lifetime earnings, according to a report from Georgetown University.

In the more than five decades since it launched, the Pell Grant has helped low- and middle-income students unlock a path to economic prosperity by providing critical need-based funding that does not have to be repaid. Since 1980, the Pell Grant has helped more than 211.8 million students access — and complete — higher education.

Nearly seven million undergraduate students receive a Pell Grant each year.  At the same time about $3.6 million in Pell Grant awards went unclaimed last year, meaning students are missing out on millions of dollars of free aid that could support their higher education. 

It’s time to increase awareness of the Pell Grant and enhance it to meet the needs of 21st-century students, many of whom are first-generation college students, from underserved or underrepresented communities, or exploring non-traditional paths to higher education.

Reforms — such as meaningfully increasing the size of the Pell Grant or allowing it to be applied to more programs — could increase access to higher education and limit the potential for overborrowing, as would informing families about the importance of completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). A modernized Pell Grant could put more students on a path to long-term success.

Raising Awareness About FAFSA Completion

To receive a Pell Grant, students must first complete the FAFSA. Our research shows that only 20% of families with a student planning to pursue higher education feel very prepared to complete the FAFSA, and only a third of first-generation families plan to submit the form — even while 42% of them agree that more grant aid would make college more affordable.

Recent updates to simplify the FAFSA application have made the application more streamlined. The updated FAFSA may help significantly more students from low-income backgrounds receive Pell Grants and potentially 1.5 million more students receive the maximum amount than previous years, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education. Raising awareness about completing the FAFSA is key to helping families unlock more aid for higher education.

Meaningfully Increase Funding

A study from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities found that boosting the size of the Pell Grant would increase college retention and enrollment rates for low-income students. A separate analysis from the Urban Institute concluded that doubling the Pell Grant maximum amount would lead to higher grant awards for students of color, a change that could help to address decades-old education inequalities.

The Pell Grant was increased by $500 last year, but with inflation and higher costs of living, the increase isn’t significant. Sallie Mae supports meaningfully increasing the Pell Grant to meet the needs of students today.

Policymakers should also consider allowing the Pell Grant to be used for short-term skills training programs, such as coding boot camps or trade schools. Expanding the Pell Grant would help students start a new career more affordably while simultaneously addressing skills gaps.

Supporting Those With The Most Need

Our federal student loan program has been broken for far too long, often impacting those who need the most support. Meaningfully expanding the Pell Grant, and increasing awareness of its benefits and the associated application process, are critical to ensure that the federal higher education financing system does what it was intended to — facilitate access to education for those with the greatest need.