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Pell Grant put college within my reach. Now, let's double it: University chancellor

So many of these students already have the odds stacked against them. Pell Grants can encourage more students not only to apply but also to succeed.

As Congress remains mired in weeks of negotiations surrounding the potential $3.5 trillion spending bill, one measure still being debated stands above the rest. The time is now for our legislators to recognize and strengthen one of our country’s most transformative programs – one that has unlocked the life-changing opportunities of a college degree for millions of low- and moderate-income students each year over the past half-century

I should know. I was a Pell Grant recipient, myself.

There is little doubt that the additional grant funding made available to me represented a pathway to a college education that would have otherwise remained sadly and frustratingly out of reach. Without that pathway, my life would have turned out demonstrably differently. I was one of the lucky ones.

When I started my college career in 1984, the Pell Grant award that we recognize was just over a decade old. Now it is painfully obvious for students that the maximum award does not stretch nearly as far as it did previously. In fact, the maximum Pell Grant award once covered more than 75% of the cost of college, but now covers less than a third.

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This means that each year, the nearly 7 million Pell Grant recipients nationwide are left on their own to figure out how to fund the rest of their education or risk giving up on their personal and professional dreams. Perhaps equally troubling is that the number of recipients has fallen for nearly a decade. After hitting an all-time high in 2011-12 of 9.4 million recipients, the annual awards fell each year for the rest of the 2010s, and by almost 30% over that timeframe. 

Expand Pell, invest in America

At the California State University, the importance of the Pell Grant is increasingly critical to our students and their families. As the country’s largest and most diverse public university system, half of our undergraduate students receive funding from Pell. These dollars are vital not only for encouraging students to apply, but also for ensuring they’re positioned to succeed once on campus.

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So many of these students already have the odds stacked against them in myriad ways. One of my biggest priorities for the CSU is to eliminate equity gaps in terms of graduation rates across all our 23 campuses. My hope is for every student to feel supported and empowered to focus on their academics and complete their required coursework, despite what they may also face outside of our – and often, their – control.

COVID-19 changed everything

It’s impossible to overstate the added urgency brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased economic strain felt by so many of our students struggling to cover the rising costs of housing, food, transportation and child care. Doubling the maximum Pell award from $6,495 to $13,000 would simultaneously address the basic-needs crisis that students and their institutions face, while also preparing the educated workforce and future leaders who will be integral to building back our economy.

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Moreover, the time is now to open Pell Grant eligibility to students enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, to ensure these vital resources are also within reach of thousands of Dreamers who wish to pursue an education to better themselves, as well as their families, communities and nation.

If we don’t open the doors as wide as possible to a college education for every student willing and able to do the work, we’re limiting our collective talent pool. These students are eager to learn and to fill the millions of jobs that are sitting vacant.

But beyond the jobs of the present are the jobs of the future. Today’s legislators have the opportunity to reinvest boldly in our country’s young and diverse talent who will one day become our next generation of leaders, just as those many years ago invested in me and my classmates. It’s a commitment for which I’ll be forever grateful, and one I’m committed to pay forward.

Joseph I. Castro is chancellor of the California State University.

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