Thursday, June 21, 2012
Honoring the 40th Anniversary of Pell Grants
Mr. President, 1972 was a watershed year for expanding educational opportunities in this country.
The Education Amendments of 1972 included title IX--now known as the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act--guaranteeing educational opportunities for women and girls in federally supported educational institutions.
But 1972 also saw, within the Education Amendments, the creation of the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant. Today we know it as the Pell Grant. It was named in honor and in recognition of the extraordinary vision and service of my colleague, my predecessor from Rhode Island, Claiborne Pell. He authored this provision.
Forty years later, we can see how these two key changes to our educational laws have transformed our Nation and transformed the aspirations of millions of Americans.
It is also a good time to reflect on the challenges that remain and to renew our commitment to fulfilling the promise of opportunity represented in the Education Amendments of 1972.
Senator Pell's vision was that no student with the talent, drive, and desire should be denied the opportunity for a post-secondary education solely because of a lack of financial resources. Pell grants have opened the doors to a college education for millions of Americans.
In the 1973-1974 academic year--the first year students received grants--176,000 Pell grants were awarded. In the school year that began in the fall of 2010, that number grew to over 9.6 million.
Pell grants constitute approximately 23 percent of all Federal student aid, which includes grants, loans, and work study programs.
The Pell grant is the cornerstone of our Federal student aid programs. For needy students, it is the foundation for making college affordable. Unfortunately, reduced State support for higher education and rising college costs have eroded that foundation.
In 1976, the maximum Pell grant was $1,400, which was enough to cover 72 percent of the cost of attendance at a public 4-year college. In 2010, the maximum Pell Grant was $5,550, which was only enough to cover 34 percent of the cost of attendance at a public 4-year college.
We have seen an erosion of the buying power of the Pell grant. If we were matching the effort that he initiated in the 1970s, we would be providing more opportunities and more support for college students across this Nation.
Senator Pell understood that grant aid was critical for low-income students and families. The goal was to minimize the need for loans. Frankly, back in the 1970s, most young people with a Pell grant--working through the summer, and working the extra hours they had to during the academic year--could pay their way through school, leave school without huge debt.
Today, regrettably, there are students graduating from school with $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 worth of debt because the Pell grants have not kept up, because college costs have accelerated, and because they have been forced to borrow. Today, low-income students and middle-income students rely heavily on student loans to pay for college.
And we are seeing another burden; and, frankly, this ripples throughout our economy. In the 1970s and 1980s, if you left college owing a few thousand dollars, you could pay that off very quickly. So by your late twenties, you were ready to settle down, to buy the house. Today, we have a generation of students who are struggling with debt that might take them 10 or more years to pay off. Effectively, they cannot begin to buy the home, to settle down, to do the things that are so important to our overall economy.
Unless we are able to come to an agreement over the next several days, we also face the prospect of seeing the rate on subsidized student loans double by July 1.
That would deal another blow to moderate- and low-income families. Leader Reid has proposed a very reasonable compromise. I hope that the Republicans will let that compromise go forward. I am hopeful my Republican colleagues can use this opportunity not only to continue to keep the lending rate low for Stafford loans but renew our own pledge on the Pell grant.
It would be ironic to see, on the 40th anniversary of the Pell grant, a further undermining of the ability of middle- to low-income Americans to go to college. In fact, this should be an opportunity to do much more. Senator Pell's words ring as true today as when he spoke them in 1995, one of the last years of his tenure in the Senate.
In his words:
As I have stated on many occasions, few things in life are more important than the education of our children. They are the living legacy that we leave behind and their education determines the future of the American Nation. .....
..... Every day families are making decisions about sending their children to college. Certainly one of, if not the major obstacle they face is how to pay for college. The loan is their last resort. It provides the extra but necessary money they must have after exhausting their own resources and obtaining any grants for which their children might be eligible. Increasing the amount that children owe after graduation may well place the dream of a college education beyond their reach. That, to my mind, would be a tragedy of truly immense proportions. .....
Senator Pell was right. Increasing student debt, especially during these difficult economic times, would be a tragedy for students, their families, and our Nation. I urge my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, on our side of the aisle, all my colleagues, to work together to prevent an increase in the student loan interest rate from doubling on July 1.
That would, indeed, be a fitting tribute to Senator Pell on the 40th anniversary of the Pell grant.