Black colleges and universities got a big win in the new federal budget: a major expansion of the Pell Grants used by thousands of their students.
The bill expands Pell Grants for the nation’s low-income college students by providing the help for three semesters instead of just two per calendar year.
About 1 million students nationwide could benefit from the average $1,650 in additional grant money in the 2017-18 academic year. The year-round restoration will run the government about $2 billion a year, education experts say.
About 8 million students receive Pell funding, which helps them attend two-year and four year colleges and universities.
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The change, contained in the bill that keeps the government running through Sept. 30, will be especially helpful to students attending the nation’s historically black colleges and universities. About 70 percent of the nearly 300,000 students who attend the country’s 100-plus HBCUs are Pell Grant recipients.
More than 70 HBCU presidents had pressed congressional Republican leaders and Trump administration officials about restoring year-round Pell during a gathering in Washington in February organized by Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.
Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, called the return of the year-round grant a key win for black colleges.
“UNCF has long fought for restoration of summer Pell Grants and increasing the maximum award, and we applaud Congress for making this a reality for HBCU students who rely on these critical funds,” Lomax said.
For Walker, though, the victory was bittersweet. His district includes North Carolina A&T State University, and Scott represents a state with eight public and private two and four-year HBCU’s, including South Carolina State University and Benedict College.
Walker and Scott had sent a letter to the House of Representatives and Senate Appropriation committees last month outlining the importance of year-round Pell to black college students.
“During a recent congressional fly-in of HBCU presidents and chancellors, year-round Pell garnered nearly unanimous support of those in attendance,” Walker and Scott wrote.
But Walker, chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee, voted against the $1 trillion spending bill that President Donald Trump signed into law Friday to avert a government shutdown, blasting it as “pay dirt for progressive priorities.”
Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairman and top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, didn’t need much convincing on the Pell expansion.
Murray pointed out that 16,000 Washington State students will benefit from the additional money. Blunt noted that the expansion will help 20,000 students at Missouri colleges and universities take classes throughout the year.
“Restoring year-round Pell Grants is a bipartisan, common-sense approach to making college affordable for hardworking students in Missouri and across the nation,” Blunt said. “By allowing full- and part-time students to receive an additional Pell Grant during the year, often for a summer session, we’re helping them stay on track for graduation or re-enter the workforce sooner, and graduate with less debt.”
Higher education officials and advocates say the omnibus bill’s effect is mixed. While praising the Pell expansion, Lomax and other education advocates lamented that the bill shifts $1.3 billion out of the Pell reserves.
And they worry about what will happen when the fiscal 2017 budget expires Sept. 30 and congressional lawmakers and the White House negotiate on the fiscal 2018 budget.
Trump, in the budget blueprint he released in March, called for cuts in the Department of Education and the cancellation of $3.9 billion in carryover Pell funding.
Administration officials and Trump-supporting Republicans – upset that the fiscal 2017 bill didn’t include items like funding for construction of a U.S.-Mexican border wall and didn’t strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood – vowed to fight for the president’s priorities in the next budget.
Trump signed an executive order in February signaling his administration’s support for black colleges, but the document and his March budget outline contained no additional funding for the schools.
“The FY17 appropriations bill contains a mixed bag of wins and losses for HBCU students,” Lomax said. “A more robust investment in federal student aid programs will enhance college access, improve college outcomes – both persistence and degree completion – and lower student debt.”