Pondering Pell

Career College Central summary:

  • Proposals to do everything from slightly tweak to completely transform the Pell Grant Program have begun churning through the higher education policy world in this town, driven by the view (held by many, but not all) that the program's expanded costs warrant a reboot.
  • A new report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office does not take sides in the potentially contentious debates either over whether Pell is now too big or ineffective, or whether or how it might be reworked. But it does provide some facts about why spending on the program has grown, as well as evidence about the potential effects of some of the current proposals to change the program and some alternative methods of helping low-income students afford college.
  • The report begins with an analysis of why the Pell program grew so much — by 168 percent, the CBO found — from 2006 to 2011, before dipping a bit in 2012. The number of grant recipients ballooned over that time, to 9.3 million in 2010-11 from 5.2 million in 2006-7, compared to an increase of just 400,000 in the previous four years.
  • The CBO cites two main reasons for the boom in Pell recipients: significant increases in the number of students enrolling in postsecondary education and in the proportion of those students eligible for Pell Grants. The reasons for the former, the agency said, were the poor economy, the increased availability of federal financial aid (both grant aid and loan funds), and the expansion of distance education (likely amplified by the 2005 federal policy change that allowed colleges eligible for federal aid to enroll more than half of their students in online programs).

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