Pell Grants: A Key to America's Promise

Pell Grants: A Key to America's Promise
by Dr. N. Joyce Payne
Founder, Thurgood Marshall College Fund

Nearly 40 years ago. U.S. Sen. Claiborne de Borda Pell of Rhode Island helped to pry open the doors of America's colleges and universities, making the dream of higher education a reality for the nation's sons and daughters who came from families with meager bank accounts.

Pell, an extraordinary public servant, led the charge in Congress to overhaul the Higher Education Act of 1965 and create Basic Education Opportunity Grants (BEOG), a federal program that offered a hand up--not a hand out--to students from poor and working-class families who wanted to better themselves by earning a college degree, but didn't have the cash for tuition and other expenses. Pell overcame some stiff opposition and in honor of his valiant efforts the BEOG program was renamed, Pell Grants.

Now, we are preparing to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Pell Grant program. As we do that, it's appropriate to recall something Sen. Pell said all those years ago: "The strength of the United States is not the gold in Fort Knox or the weapons of mass destruction we have, but the sum total of the education and the character of our people." Sen. Pell's words perhaps ring more true today than when he uttered them; we can ignore his important message only at our peril.

Broadening educational opportunity has been on the nation's agenda since the dark days of the Civil War. Remarkably during that turbulent and tormented era, leaders of vision--men like President Abraham Lincoln and Rep. Justin S. Morrill of Vermont--were thinking ahead and planning for the nation's educational needs once all the shooting and dying stopped. They knew, they understood, that to repair the nation, to fuel its economy, that an educated labor force was needed. So, in 1862, in the midst of all the bloodshed Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which gave federal lands to the states to build first-class universities for the children of the poor and the blue-collar classes.

Some 82 years later, when the United States again was fighting a bloody and costly war, another president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, looked beyond the immediate horizon and realized that broader educational opportunity would power America's economic success during the fateful postwar years. So, on June 22, 1944, FDR signed into law the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, better known to history as the GI Bill. FDR put his signature on this legislation just 16 days after U.S. and allied troops had stormed the beaches at Normandy on D-Day, a bold step to liberate Europe from the Nazis.

The GI Bill made higher education affordable for veterans--soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines--who had courageously fought in World War II. The GI Bill opened America's colleges to the masses; previously these campuses had been the preserve of the well-to-do. Almost 8-million veterans went to college under the GI Bill from 1945 to 1956. And, by 1947 just a smidgeon under half of all U.S. college students were vets taking advantage of the GI Bill's educational benefits.

The veterans who went to school under the GI Bill did much to build the economic muscle of the United States in the decades following World War II. The work these college graduates did helped to create unparalleled economic prosperity and made the robust U.S. economy the envy of the world. Today, millions of veterans of other wars owe their college degrees to FDR and other iconic public servants who were willing to meet fierce global economic competition by opening U.S. college classrooms to an almost endless supply of American talent and ingenuity.

But, now educational achievement posted by American students is faltering, especially in science and mathematics. Massive investments in education now are fueling an explosion of economic growth in China, Singapore, Vietnam, India, and elsewhere. This vigorous economic growth will challenge--is challenging--U.S. economic brawn.

America's public servants of yesteryear viewed education as an economic investment, an investment critical to the nation's domestic health and national security. They recognized the importance of creating world-class universities whose graduates are the best and the brightest. They believed in American exceptionalism and they were willing to make the massive investments in educational opportunity needed to nurture the scientific genius of a Jonas Salk and his polio vaccine, the amazing entrepreneurial spirit of Microsoft's Bill Gates, and the mesmerizing artistry of opera diva Leontyne Price.

The nation's investment in education also produced the incredibly powerful legal mind of lawyer and later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who played a pivotal role in moving millions of youngsters out of antiquated, tenaciously segregated public schools when he successfully argued before the nation's highest court, the landmark public-school desegregation case of Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. No other American has done more to dismantle legal segregation in public education, reaffirming the hopes and dreams of equality mandated in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

After nearly 60 years, Thurgood Marshall's voice of reason continues to remind us that "None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps." And, now, once again, the Congress is a place of debate about equality, access to, and the affordability of education. But, now some, contrary to Thurgood Marshall's sage advice are labeling the notion of educational equality as mere "welfare."

Today, economically strapped families are facing nearly insurmountable barriers to financing college educations for their children. Tuition costs continue to climb at an average rate of 4.8 to 5.8 percent annually, private/public institutions. A $5,500 Pell Grant seems paltry when you consider that $17,000 a year is the average price tag for tuition, fees, room, and board at a public college; the comparable figure is almost an astounding $39,000 at a private university.

In their heyday, Pell Grants covered about 75 percent of tuition costs at a four-year public college; however, today a Pell Grant covers less than 30 percent of those costs.

Consequently, it is important to note that Congress recently proposed to trim Pell Grant support by treating as income family benefits like food stamps, WIC basic support, and other public benefits, thus trimming eligibility. Last year, the zero base income for maximum Pell Grant eligibility was slashed from $30,000 a year to $23,000 a year. And, now, on July 1,millions of students will face another financial hit when Stafford Student Loan rates will double.

Educational access and affordability are huge issues for the 47 Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) member-schools, campuses that enroll 80 percent of all students attending the nation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). For example, 92 percent of these students rely on financial aid to pay for college. TMCF campuses enroll a disproportionate number of first-generation college students, who represent the full brunt of historic and chronic inequities exhibited in the nation's public-school system and the broader economy and society. Yet, despite these challenges, serious challenges, public HBCUs graduate a sizable share of African-American professionals. Although these campuses were born in the bitter era of Reconstruction following the Civil War, they are a powerful force for social mobility and economic prosperity. They play an unprecedented role, a constructive role, in American life.

Clearly, the unfinished business of equality of opportunity still plagues the nation's social, cultural, political, and economic landscape after 236 years of the American experiment and the American experience. But, surprisingly and sadly there is no public outcry, no news-media frenzy, and little effort to demand that the nation deliver on the promise of educational opportunity.

Let's practice what we preach around the world. We sermonize to others about the values of democracy, we lecture those beyond our borders about how a progressive society believes in nurturing and developing the infinite possibilities of the human mind. So, let's invest in millions of students with meager resources--an investment that will fuel innovation, reshape America's scientific enterprise, and revitalize our slumping economy. That's what will happen when we take meaningful steps to broaden access to America's campuses.

Never has the need been greater for Congress to engage our colleges and universities in celebrating the 40th anniversary of Pell Grants. And, that celebration should be highlighted by a massive investment in the American promise, a promise, in part, made possible by the Pell Grant program.