Is the Pell Grant in Trouble? Are We?

Heard this on the radio the other day:

Study: More Adult Pell Grant Students, Not Enough Graduating (02:54 | transcript)

The US federal government-funded Pell Grant is a need-based award for 9 million US students. In sum, it’s quite a bit of cash: $34.5 billion each year, but break those numbers down, and we’re looking at just over $3,800 per student per year. 1

Yet according to a College Board report from late last year, the average total price (tuition, room, board, books, etc.) for public, in-state four-year universities for the 2012-2013 academic year is a whopping $22,261. Compared to that, the Pell money is a drop in the bucket — and let’s not talk about total costs at private universities.

Moreover, the average Pell Grant recipient is changing along with the rest of the higher education space — nearly half of the students are adults looking for a new shot at economic advancement.

But the Pell Grant was conceived almost fifty years ago to serve traditional (i.e. young, inexperienced, low-overhead) students, at a time when a motivated student really could foot the bill for a four-year school with just a part-time job waiting tables.

The real shocker is this: only 3 percent of the non-traditional student recipients ever receive a bachelor’s degree. Presumably, life intervenes (and many students’ needs may be met by a few courses or a two-year degree), but it’s safe to say that, overall, the money simply isn’t achieving its goals. Meanwhile American students have managed to rack up over $1 trillion in college debt. In fact, according to one calculation, student debt is going up by $2,853.88 per second — and that’s not including accrued interest over the life of the debt.2 A little math reveals the following: at this rate, students of American colleges blow through the total yearly allocation of Pell Grants in just 140 days.

A system built to provide a solid, free foundation for financing a college education isn’t providing enough to either population it serves, and it just isn’t working. We’re not really okay with that. Nobody should be. So…what now?


1Kim Clark, “Tuition at public colleges rises 4.8%” CNN Money (24 October 2012)
2FinAid.org Student Loan Debt Clock (accessed 12 April 2013)