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What to Know about Pell Grants at Your Institution

What to Know about Pell Grants at Your Institution

The below is excerpted from a recent Trusteeship Q&A by Sandy Baum, senior fellow at the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute and author of Student Debt: Rhetoric and Realities of Higher Education Financing.

Is it important to know how many students on campus receive Pell Grants?

The federal Pell Grant program has provided grant aid to low- and moderate-income students since the mid-1970s. With a maximum award of $5,815 in 2016-17, the program makes it possible for many students for whom college would have been out of reach to continue their education. The program is popular on both sides of the aisle but depends on annual appropriations from Congress and is constantly under threat in budget negotiations.

About one-third of all undergraduate students receive Pell Grants. But the percentages vary widely across campuses. On some open-admission campuses serving low-income communities, more than 70 or 80 percent of students may receive Pell Grants. On some highly selective private nonprofit campuses, less than 10 percent of students qualify. The public pressure on selective campuses to enroll more low-income students is growing, and the easiest way to measure this is in terms of Pell Grants. For example, the New York Times Upshot created a College Access Index based on this metric combined with the net prices low-income students pay.

On one hand, Pell Grant recipients bring those funds to campus and can put them toward tuition bills. Any institution concerned with socioeconomic diversity and improving educational opportunities will have to pay attention to this indicator.

On the other hand, these students have very limited funds of their own and are likely to need significant amounts of institutional aid if they are not to face high levels of unmet need and rely heavily on borrowing.

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