The month of September signals change. It is the beginning of a new season, and for many, it is the start of a new school year. One thing that has not changed, however, is the reauthorization status of the Higher Education Act (HEA). This act is essentially the framework for how institutions of higher learning operate in the United States. As it stands, the HEA has not been updated in 11 years.
The current state of the American higher education system is associated with high costs and a student debt crisis that lead many to question whether a degree is worth all the trouble. In order to address these concerns and meet the needs of today’s students, Congress needs to prioritize its reauthorization.
My existence as a first-generation, low-income, brown college student may be used by some to advertise the facility of attaining a college degree today with enough hard work. If someone like me can get into college, then others can too. But the truth is, my hard work would have meant little if I was not at the right place at the right time. Following work opportunities, my family moved right before I started kindergarten. In my new, and much smaller, school district there was funding to take kids on field trips and provide classrooms with decent textbooks. More importantly, I met teachers in high school who introduced me to college scholarship programs.
It is possible that I still could have ended up going to college had my family not moved, but my path to an affordable higher education was made much easier because of my school district. Unfortunately, systemic barriers make it difficult for low-income students and people of color to access schools that provide needed support. As long as those barriers remain, hard work is not always enough.
But students should not have to rely on luck to afford higher education. The higher education system needs to be reformed to make colleges and universities more accessible, as well as have them equipped with the resources to best support students of various backgrounds as they complete their degree. The reauthorization of the HEA is how we begin to make this change possible.
An important aspect of the HEA is its role in overseeing federal student aid, the most notable being the Pell Grant program. In its early years, this federal grant was able to cover 79 percent of the total cost of attendance (COA) at public 4-year colleges. For students today, it covers less than 30 percent. Despite qualifying for nearly the maximum amount, I can expect the Pell grant to cover only 8 percent of my college’s COA for the 2019-2020 school year. My school’s need-based grants and scholarships are the main reason why I can afford to attend classes. It would be impossible for me and my family to cover the remaining 92 percent without my college’s support.
However, not all colleges and universities meet 100 percent of students’ demonstrated need, and this is why many students turn towards other means to pay for college. Sixty-four percent of Pell Grant recipients at public 4-year universities take out federal student loans, and this number increases to 80 percent for students who attend private nonprofit 4-year universities. The purpose of the Pell Grant was to make post-secondary education more accessible for low-income students, but many of its recipients are finding it more difficult to afford college when help remains stagnant and costs continue to rise.
When Congress finally reauthorizes the HEA, I hope that the Pell Grant system undergoes significant reform. The maximum award should be increased in order to cover a larger percentage of colleges and universities COA. To ensure that the grant is keeping up with the rising cost, as well as protected from spending cuts, funding for the Pell Grant system should be on the mandatory side of the budget. Pell should also be able to work for “non-traditional” students by being made available for more semesters. Every student that qualifies for the Pell Grant should have access to it, and there are various ways to accomplish that, whether it be simplifying the FAFSA or restoring eligibility for defrauded students. These proposed measures are only a fraction of what can be accomplished to reform the American higher education system.
The Pell Grant is representative of the federal government’s commitment to college accessibility. It is time for members of Congress to prove that the commitment is still there and reauthorize the HEA. Students can no longer afford to wait for change.
Araceli Becerra is a junior at Pomona College where she is majoring in Politics.