Evolution of the Pell Grant

College education is more accessible now than it has ever been. Marginalized communities are able to go further than ever before. With women gaining the right to vote in 1920 and the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, a new majority of the country was inspired to go to college and pursue professional careers. With rising numbers came rising costs for colleges and accounted for some of the rise in tuition costs. According to Time Magazine, the cost for Vassar College, a small liberal arts college in New York, was $1,200 ($19,000 in today’s currency) in 1931. The price for a year at Vassar is now $67,740.

Tuition inflation led to increased interest by the federal government in higher education. They wanted to help lower class families achieve their goals, possibly bettering the country as a whole. The first step was taken in 1953, when the first financial aid need analysis formula was created by John Monro of Harvard University. In 1972, amendments to the Higher Education Act established the Federal Pell Grant, which had its own formula for determining aid eligibility. As of 1974, the National Task Force on Student Aid Problems was established. Several changes were made in order to cater the application to American families. The pursuit of a perfect student financial aid system appeared to come to a close in 1998, when the Higher Education Act was amended, creating the Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and merging it with the Pell Grant. The Pell Grant retired its application, adopting FAFSA. They now award the Pell Grant to those who have filled out the FAFSA, streamlining the process.

Raquel Laiz runs the College and Career Center at Franklin. She believes that as a state, “we do a pretty good job” at supporting Pell Grant qualifiers. Oregon is looking big picture; the state wants to help all students who have the dream and the drive to go to college. Laiz mentioned that “undocumented students that want to go to college—they don’t qualify for the Pell Grant because it’s federal financial aid, but they do qualify for the Oregon Opportunity Grant, which is something similar, but from the state of Oregon. So that is a pretty important part that we are adding in Oregon that other states don’t have.” She noted the fact that here at Franklin, with the high numbers of students on Free and Reduced lunch, college decisions are not simply made of flashy majors, Greek life, or campus environment—they are based on affordability.

She also mentions that the maximum amount of money awarded for a Pell Grant fluctuates somewhat. This is usually due to how many seniors actually fill out the FAFSA and does not reflect rising college costs. But schools now more than ever are focusing on helping disadvantaged students. The New York Times College Index ranks colleges based on their economic diversity. The title “Top Colleges Doing the Most for the American Dream” resides at the top of their webpage, opening a door to a resource for Pell Grant qualifiers. They use a three-step equation in determining the ranking. To be considered for the index, colleges must have a five year graduation rate of at least 75%. The number of incoming freshmen receiving Pell Grants is multiplied by graduation rates for current Pell Grant students. This equals the number of Pell Grant students expected to graduate. The final step is factoring total price of attendance paid for by families earning $30,000 to $75,000 annually. An average score on the index is one. Having an average score implies an effort to accommodate Pell Grant families; having a higher score correlates to the eagerness of a school to help students.

University of California schools top the index, with scores ranging from 1.9 to 1.52. The first Ivy League school is Harvard in 10th, followed by Princeton in 13th. The first Oregon school is Reed, which sits at 62nd, with a score of 1.03. University of Portland is the only other Oregon school on the list, at 140 with a score of 0.67. Even though Oregon colleges do not top the index, they have high numbers of Pell Grant recipients. At the Ivies near the top of the list—Harvard and Princeton—Pell Grant recipients make up only 18% and 15% of student populations, respectively. Oregon schools have much higher percentages: Oregon State at 33%, Portland state at 40%, and Warner Pacific at 55%. Laiz believes these high numbers come from availability of additional scholarships that Pell Grant students qualify for.

Kathleen Williams (12) recently filled out the FAFSA. Like the majority of seniors, she was nervous about the process and afraid of making mistakes. She was surprised when “it turned out to be extremely self-explanatory and the application itself guides [one] through the process.”

Sometimes fear of failure can stop a college dream in its tracks, whether it is by fear of FAFSA, fear of cost, or fear of rejection. Colleges high up on the New York Times Index are working to eradicate this fear. This will serve the global community by creating a progressively educated generation that can relate to and help all spectrums of race and economic class. This hope is embodied in Pell Grant recipients. Williams explains, “The money I’m receiving definitely made affording college way less of a burden! My plan is to choose a school with a cost that is not too high, and FAFSA plays a huge role in that!”

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