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Access to higher education is the gateway, degree completion is the goal. Doubling the Pell Grant will help

Since 1972, the federal Pell Grant Program has expanded access to education for millions more Americans than otherwise would have earned a college degree. The grant has made college affordable for low-income students, particularly aiding students of color. Just last year, Pell supported 6.9 million students nationwide and 117,797 in Colorado. At Fort Lewis College, 36% of our students receive Pell Grants.

As a first-generation college student myself and now a college president, I know well the challenges of equal access. Just as crucial a challenge, however, is degree completion. Getting that acceptance letter and first setting foot on a college campus is a thrilling step, particularly for those who had to work hardest to achieve it. Unfortunately, not all students make it from first class to cap and gown. Affordability is key to both access and completion. That’s why at FLC we have the FLC Tuition Promise, covering the tuition for Colorado families making under $60,000. Not only does it show high school students that education is possible for them, but it relieves financial stress and, in most cases, the need to take on other work so that students can focus on what college is really about: learning and embarking on a bright future with a college degree. Federal funding like the Pell Grant makes this promise of focused education possible for students at FLC and students nationwide.

With more time to focus on their studies, Pell recipients take more classes. And students who take more classes are more likely to graduate on time. Academic research such as from the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis and the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that need-based grant aid increases college enrollment and completion among low- and moderate-income students. The Pell Grant is the foundation of that aid. But in the 1980s, the maximum Pell Grant covered over half the cost of tuition, fees, room and board at a four-year public college. Now, the maximum Pell Grant covers just 28% of the cost of college. By doubling the maximum grant of $6,345 to nearly $13,000, millions of the next generation of American students will have more choice about where they attend college, less stress while attending and a greater likelihood of reaping the benefits of a degree. If Pell Grants were doubled, we could expand our FLC Tuition Promise to families making $75,000 with minimal costs to FLC.

Besides the social and educational benefits of post-secondary education, we also know there are financial benefits. You’re more likely to have a job and it’s more likely that job pays well. To put that effect into close focus during the last decade, 99% of the 11.6 million new jobs added during the post-Great Recession recovery went to those with some post-secondary education, and nearly 75% of those jobs went to those with a bachelor’s degree or higher. The world is now enduring a public health crisis with associated impacts on employment and financial health.

As many readers of The Durango Herald know, FLC has been up in enrollment the last two years. Unfortunately, this is not common for other colleges and universities. In the wake of COVID-19, first-year college enrollment for fall 2020 was down 13% across all of higher education, and financial aid applications are down 6.5% for low-income students. As an educator, I’m concerned about these higher education trends nationally and how they may affect FLC in the long term. We risk deepening existing inequalities and a generation of progress if we do not combat these pandemic-induced trends. Those who will be best positioned to steer against the winds will be those with a college degree and less debt from loans.

By doubling the Pell Grant, Congress and the Biden administration will ensure not only that we do not lose a generation of college-educated Americans from lack of access but also by increasing the likelihood that through federal support, low-income students will persist, succeed and graduate with their degree. It will move the next generation and their families up the economic ladder and ensure they have the skills to help America succeed as it faces the world’s most pressing problems.

Tom Stritikus is president of Fort Lewis College.