Thriving, not just surviving

by Steven Roberts

By barring the use of race in college admissions, the Supreme Court has focused attention on a critical question: Who gets into the most elite institutions of higher learning? But the current furor masks an equally important issue: Once they gain admission, how do those students afford to pay their bills and stay in school?  

A second Supreme Court decision, throwing out the Biden administration’s attempt to reduce student debt for millions of borrowers, highlights this point. It’s now more imperative than ever that Congress vastly increase the amount of federal aid that individuals can receive under a vital program called Pell Grants. 

These grants do not have to be repaid, freeing students from the crushing burden of debt, and last year Congress did raise the maximum annual award by $500 to $7,395. A good move, but still, the purchasing power of those grants has dropped dramatically in the face of rising college costs and general inflation. 

A consortium of education advocacy groups is pushing what it calls the “Double Pell” initiative; in a recent letter to Congressional leaders, they wrote, “the current maximum Pell award still covers the lowest share of costs in the program’s 50-year history.”  

“In the past 20 years,” reports the website Nerd Wallet, “average tuition and fees at public four-year institutions … have more than doubled, to $10,440, while maximum Pell Grant awards have only grown 29%.” Twenty years ago, maximum grants covered most costs at those public universities; today they finance only about 60%. 

“The Pell Grant is not keeping pace with the cost of education, and it hasn’t kept pace with the cost of education for years, probably even decades,” Brad Barnett, director of financial aid at James Madison University in Virginia, told U.S. News. 

There’s a larger point here. With the court outlawing the use of race in admissions decisions, more attention is now focusing on alternative metrics, especially socioeconomic status, which can be both effective and lawful. And the history of Pell Grants graphically demonstrates the effectiveness of using “adversity” as a substitute for an explicit racial preference in reaching disadvantaged minorities. 

More than three-quarters of all Pell Grants go to low-income students whose families earn less than $40,000, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. Almost 60% of Black students and more than 40% of Latino students receive the grants. The program also helps about half of first-generation college students and their parents, as well as 40% of student veterans of all races. 

During my 30-plus years of teaching at George Washington University, I’ve learned a few basic truths. The first is that diversity is critically important to the health of any school or classroom. My feature writing course bubbled with vitality when one student profiled her grandmothers, who’d been born in Ghana and Panama; when another recounted how her grandfather had witnessed the atrocities committed against fellow Muslims during the partition of India; and when a third wrote about her Mexican-born parents, who live as undocumented immigrants in rural Texas. 

I’ve also learned that these students, and many more like them, lack the elasticity and resources enjoyed by many of their comfortable white classmates. If everything goes right, they can make it through. But if one thing goes wrong — a parent loses a job, a relative gets sick, a truck breaks down — they can be plunged into crisis. 

Raising the annual Pell Grant amount would help considerably, but federal aid can’t do this alone. Private philanthropy is also essential, and here’s where yet another recent issue intrudes — the growing argument that giving preference to “legacy” students at select institutions amounts to affirmative action for wealthy white families. 

Sure it does. But it’s also true that families with long attachments to an institution are far more likely to donate money that can then be used to help students with fewer resources stay in school. This a bargain worth making. 

Accepting disadvantaged students into college is only the beginning of their journey, not the end. They need all sorts of help, not just to graduate, but to grow. Not just to survive, but to thrive. And when they do thrive, we all benefit. 

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Email: stevecokie@gmail.com.