How Tough Love Can Ensure the Future of Pell Grants

November 05, 2012

The Pell Grant program turned 40 this year. Forty years ago, the idea that the federal government had the right and the responsibility to help low- and moderate-income students increase their chances of earning college degrees was new. From the vantage point of today's world, it's not easy to see how novel the new policy was. The grants have not only made education possible for many Americans. They have also succeeded in establishing in the American psyche, or at least in the minds and hearts of a clear majority of Americans, the idea that young people should not have to be born to affluent or educated parents in order to expect a college education.

But it's time to think deeply about what will be needed to make it possible for people to come together again in another 40 years to celebrate the continuing success of the federal government in increasing educational opportunities. It will take more than just adding funds to the Pell program.

Debates are intensifying about where student aid should fall on the list of federal priorities. Some people argue that cutting back on federal aid would make college more affordable, because it would cause tuition to decline. (Proponents of that view don't pay much attention to how low-income students would pay even the supposedly reduced prices.) A few people argue that we are wasting resources pushing people into postsecondary education, when really only a small percentage of them will benefit from college.

Such ill-conceived and arguably self-serving positions are not likely to carry the day anytime soon, but unfortunately we have allowed them to draw the battle lines. The response is too frequently an extreme or simplistic statement based on the idea that everyone should go to college or that any money for any needy student is well spent.

As we think about the future of Pell Grants, we must remember that enlightened and effective public policy requires attention to both equity and efficiency. The Princeton University economist Alan S. Blinder made a similar point in his 1987 book, Hard Heads, Soft Hearts: Tough-Minded Economics for a Just Society. "There is an appealing philosophy of economic policy that combines hard-headed respect for economic efficiency with soft-hearted concern for society's underdogs," he wrote.

It's easy to assume that if a program has an important goal, all the money devoted to it is well spent. When a program is as visibly helpful in achieving its goal—as the Pell Grants have been in expanding access to higher education—it's even more tempting.

But we have to look at the impact of each dollar spent on a program, not just its overall impact. We might be able to further the goal of Pell Grants—making people's lives better—by taking the time to consider potential improvements.

If we want to increase the program's contribution to social justice, we must look at it with both soft hearts and hard heads. That means asking hard questions about who should get money for what, and under what circumstances; how the recipients should be determined; and what uses that money can be put to. There is no reason to believe that the status quo cannot be improved upon.

One area of concern is that a lot of people who start college never earn any degree or certificate. Contrary to some views, that does not necessarily mean they have wasted their time, or that society has wasted its resources. Clearly we have to encourage and support the enrollment of many students who are uncertain about their goals and aspirations and who will need considerable support—academic, personal, financial—to make it through. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to guide them in making decisions about if, when, where, and why they should become students.

It's not OK to pat ourselves on the back for giving people a few thousand dollars a year to make college possible and then watch as they descend into despair because they failed, losing years of their lives and/or thousands of dollars. A few hundred dollars a year in extra Pell funds is not going to solve that problem.

Instead of just assuming that more money for Pell Grants is the best answer to the serious hurdles facing disadvantaged potential students, then, we should look more carefully at their circumstances.

Maybe we should put family planning, prenatal care, access to health care, early-childhood education, and K-12 financing at the top of our agenda, or at least consider whether marginal dollars of added government spending for Pell Grants would be better spent aimed in those other directions. There is considerable evidence that a dollar invested early in life has more impact than a dollar invested later in life.

Maybe we should limit the postsecondary options available, if people don't have the information and counseling necessary to make good choices. We might be more restrictive about the institutions and programs at which students can use federal funds.

Maybe we should have stricter requirements for academic progress as a requirement for continuing student aid. Clearly we shouldn't focus assistance on only the most promising or most successful students. But we should think about whether we can design programs to be more supportive of student success, increasing the motivation of both students and colleges to improve completion rates.

Maybe we should think about whether all students are better off staying in college when they are struggling, or whether they would be better off taking a different route, at least for a while.

Maybe we should associate financing—particularly for those seeking specific occupational training—with well-designed counseling programs, and maybe we should ensure that such programs are well coordinated with local labor markets. When the Pell program was started, college usually meant a four-year institution. It didn't mean job training, which once upon a time was separately financed. The majority of Pell recipients now are independent students, most of them older than traditional college age. A high percentage of recipients enrolled in postsecondary institutions are seeking certificates or vocational associate degrees.

Maybe we should acknowledge not only the success of the Pell program in expanding to serve a diverse population of students, but also the difficulties it has encountered in doing so. Spending has increased as the scope of the program has grown (and as the economy tanked). Completion rates are a problem—partly because more students with marginal academic preparation are enrolling, partly because public institutions have declining resources with which to meet their needs, and partly because students, lacking information and counseling, attend colleges that do not put a priority on meeting those needs.

Maybe we are doing everything right. But if we want to celebrate another 40 years of success, we have to ask ourselves such questions. We have to stop allowing the political discussion to be framed as a debate between those who want the program to absorb fewer taxpayer dollars and those who believe that the only improvement is adding more money.

We have to do so if we want to move toward a more just society.

Sandy Baum is an independent higher-education-policy analyst and a senior fellow at the George Washington University School of Education and Human Development.