Op-ed: The Power of Pell and Senator Richard Burr’s Opportunity

In North Carolina, 37.7 percent of undergraduate students received the Pell Grant for the 2018-2019 academic year. The Pell scholarship, introduced in 1965 under the University Act, was intended to be more than just financial aid. It was created to give prospective college students the opportunity to attend college or university regardless of their family’s financial situation. In the 1970s, a Pell Maximum Scholarship covered more than 75 percent of total four-year college tuition costs. Today, however, more than 50 years after the Pell Scholarship was established, the Pell Maximum Scholarship covers less than 30 percent of the tuition fees at a public four-year college. Between 1985-86 and 2017-18 academic years, the average cost of attending a four-year college or university in the United States increased 497 percent, more than double the rate of inflation!

While Congress sought to keep pace with inflation and rising costs, it is necessary to make significant investments in the program to help offset the college affordability crisis. With college costs rising and the unequal distribution of scholarships and grants, low-income students rely on other services, such as government and institutional assistance, and government and private student loans, to cover remaining costs. Take, for example, the UNC’s higher education system, where 84 percent of Pell students receive loans and only 46 percent of non-Pell students take loans; Pell students borrow $ 3,000 more in loans than non-Pell borrowers, and students from the lowest income families end up borrowing the most and graduating at lower rates. These statistics show that the Pell Grant is no longer serving as it was intended: as a means for students of all financial backgrounds to gain a degree and financial independence.

Reduced student grants combined with rising tuition fees create additional barriers for students. For example, low-income students are forced to choose between not going to college, making it difficult to find a well-paying career, or going to college and taking on a crushing student debt. Neither of these are good financial choices for low-income students, but many choose the latter because a college degree and the opportunities that come with it are hugely promising. You strive for a degree that is supposed to guarantee a stable financial future, only to graduate with dizzying debts, often in a worse financial situation than at the beginning of the degree.

Now, amid an ever worsening student debt crisis and the pandemic-induced economic downturn, the time has come to make critical investments to keep higher education affordable for low- and middle-income students. Previous recessions have been linked to higher college enrollment rates, but the pandemic has had the opposite effect. In addition, the pandemic has left many college students unemployed; the student unemployment rate rose to 10.8 percent compared to the previous year’s calculations. Unemployed and with no tuition, with many universities holding classes virtually through Zoom but keeping tuition fees high, the pandemic has created additional financial burdens for low-income students.

With the coming budget season, the federal government has the opportunity to leave a legacy of strengthened student funding. North Carolina Senator Richard Burr is the senior member of the Senate’s senior working and retirement committee on health education and has long been a supporter of Pell grants and college funding; With his upcoming retirement in two years’ time, he has the opportunity to cement his strong legacy as an undergraduate attorney by helping North Carolina’s current and future students with the doubling of the Pell Grant. Senator Richard Burr can invest in the future by standing up for Pell doubling: current and prospective low- and middle-income students who need financial assistance to enroll in higher education could do so without their families too burden. In addition, more students could graduate and have an opportunity for financial mobility with much less debt.

As Congress writes the federal budget over the next few months, the issue of college affordability and the Pell Grant will no doubt be debated. Now is the time to act: with falling enrollment rates, the importance of a college degree to the workforce, and the worsening student debt crisis, investing in Pell Grants – and low- and middle-income students – is a bipartisan and targeted way to do it to do. We call on Senator Burr and his colleagues in Congress to restore Pell’s pledge and double Pell.

Hannah Elkins,

Research Group of Public Interest in North Carolina

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Lamar Richards,

Student President

Trustee, UNC-CH Board of Trustees

Collyn Smith,

Vice President

Undergraduate student government executive

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