By Irma Becerra – Marymount University
As the president of a minority-serving institution (MSI) in Marymount University, specifically the first designated Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) in Virginia, I am proud to be part of a community of institutions nationally that serve a critical role in leveling the playing field by providing quality postsecondary education to millions of minority students nationwide. A college degree has long stood as the key to economic mobility in America, what I refer to as the “great equalizer.” That’s why it is essential to ensure that low-income, first-generation and minority students can afford to attend institutions of higher education.
Pell Grants have proven to be the most effective and equitable investment in college affordability, which is why we must increase the purchasing power of the grant. Today, nearly 7 million students receive crucial support from the Pell Grant program, which helps students in all states and territories, in all corners of the country, whether rural, urban or in between. Students of all backgrounds receive Pell Grants, with nearly 60% of Black students, half of American Indian students, nearly half of Latinx students and 30% of white students using Pell Grants to help pay for college.
However, the impact of this government program is diminishing. Forty years ago, Pell Grants covered more than 75% of the cost of tuition — today, that number has dropped to below 30%. According to studies from the American Council on Education, on average, over a quarter of all students attending MSIs are from families in the lowest-income quintile. Doubling Pell, a proven bipartisan program, from its current maximum of $6,495 to $13,000 will put more money in the hands of students first, and allow them to use it at the institution that best fits their educational needs.
As a Cuban-born immigrant whose family came to this country with nothing, access to Pell Grants truly made a significant difference in my life and future career as an educator and university administrator, and I will always advocate for students to receive the same opportunities. At Marymount, 32% of first-time degree-seeking students received Pell Grants in 2018-2019, with an average amount of $4,743. This does not go nearly far enough. If we doubled the maximum Pell Grant amount, our nation would instantly create a more equitable higher education system that produces a world of opportunities for students who would otherwise not have a pathway to a college degree.
When analyzing this problem through a more recent lens, we see how the COVID-19 pandemic exposed and exacerbated the overlapping health, economic and racial justice disparities in our country, while also pulling the rug out from under low-income students. Since the pandemic began, college enrollment is down 13 percent across the board, and financial aid applications are down six percent for low-income students. Without action, we could be sacrificing the futures of a whole generation of students. Doubling Pell as part of the post-pandemic recovery will ensure this generation of Americans gets the education and training they need to both move up the economic ladder and get the economy working again, while helping America compete in a global economy that demands high skills in fields like cybersecurity, information technology, health sciences and more.
President Joe Biden’s campaign platform emphasized the need for us to “build back better.” From the perspective of MSIs and HSIs, there is no more effective way to build a better future for our students than to double the Pell Grant. This investment will pay off not just for Pell Grant recipients, but for the entire nation as well. Studies have shown that the income levels for bachelor’s degree recipients are 40 percent above the levels of individuals who completed a high school degree, and the additional revenue paid in taxes by these graduates means the money spent to increase the Pell Grant maximum will be balanced within a decade — a strong indicator that this wise investment works both for individuals and for taxpayers.
Read the original Viewpoint article on the Washington Business Journal’s website.