A half-century of help: Pell Grant program turns 50

The federal financial aid program has helped millions of low-income students gain access to higher education with many seeing their lives immeasurably altered by obtaining a college degree.

June 23 marks the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking Pell Grant program, a key federal financial aid initiative that has provided critical support to millions of low-income students and their families as they have pursued the transformative change a college degree can bring.

The program was established by Congress on June 23, 1972, through the Higher Education Amendments of 1972 and was initially named the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant Program. To recognize his work on the landmark higher education funding initiative, the program was renamed in 1980 for U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island.

Today, children from families with a household income below $60,000 can benefit from Pell Grants, which can provide nearly $7,000 annually toward higher education costs to students from low-income families. During its history, the Pell Grant has helped more than 80 million students attend college.

Kenneth Brown Jr. ’19 speaking at the start of his senior year at Elon.

For Kenneth Brown Jr. ’19, qualifying for the Pell Grant was a critical step toward attending Elon as part of the Odyssey Program, a highly selective merit-based program for students who are academically strong and who demonstrate leadership as well as financial need. Brown was elected SGA president his senior year at Elon and served Elon as a youth trustee after his graduation.

“Having the Pell Grant status due to my financial background allowed me to apply to the Odyssey program and allowed me to have so many wonderful experiences while not having to worry as much about how I was going to be able to pay for my education,” said Brown, who was able to study abroad in Scotland as an Odyssey Scholar. He is now pursuing his master’s in higher education at Indiana University  Bloomington.

To qualify for a Pell Grant, students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is then used to determine a student’s expected family contribution. The FAFSA is the basis for eligibility as well as the amount of aid students will receive through the Pell Grant program.

Pell Grants are the single largest source of grants for postsecondary education, with more than one-third of undergraduates nationally receiving Pell Grants during the 2021-22 academic year.

Marcus Elliott, director of the Odyssey Program

Pell Grants are “absolutely crucial when you think about how to level the playing field” for those students who come from lower-income families, said Marcus Elliott, director of the Odyssey Program at Elon.

“Pell Grants and additional financial aid awards create pathways for students to access the power of education, which really has the ability to change their lives, their family members’ lives, and the trajectory of generations to follow,” Elliott said. “They can help provide the opportunity for an individual to go to school and earn a four-year degree, which can drastically improve their earning power over their lifetime, and their ability to give back to society.”

The Pell Grant is an important part of Elon’s ability to enroll students who qualify, according to Greg Zaiser, vice president for enrollment. Combining Pell with other federal, state and institutional funds often makes the difference for students Elon wants to enroll.

“Elon’s ability to enroll certain students is dependent in part on the Pell Grant,” Zaiser said. “The funding in combination with other scholarships and aid makes an Elon education possible.”

Pell Grants can be particularly important in extending the possibility of attending college to populations that have historically been marginalized. Brown, who wrote a paper for a graduate school course about the Pell Grant program this spring, notes that more can be done to make students aware of Pell Grants and to make the FAFSA application process easier to complete.

“We need to be looking at ways to work with students so that they can understand that if they want to go to college, from a federal government standpoint, here is what they might be able to provide me,” Brown said.

Greg Zaiser, vice president for enrollment

Pell Grants typically provide a foundation for a financial aid package that is supplemented by other awards from schools as well as outside organizations. For most students, it is not sufficient to cover the entire cost of attending college, particularly given the rise in higher education costs during the past several decades. The maximum Pell Grant amount has increased over time, but has been generally outpaced by increases in higher education costs.

That makes efforts to increase the resources colleges and universities can dedicate to scholarships all the more important, Brown said. For instance, the Elon LEADS Campaign has made scholarships its top priority, including generating financial support for new Odyssey Program scholarships that when coupled with the Pell Grant can increase access to an Elon education.

“Elon’s Odyssey Program has grown thanks to the incredible generosity of donors who believe in the transformational power of an Elon education,” Zaiser said.

Elon has other efforts to increase its endowment and fund scholarships, such as the “A Stay with Purpose” mission of The Inn at Elon, with profits from operations supporting scholarships for Elon students.

“The Pell Grant is part of a multifaceted approach by the federal government as well as colleges and universities to try to find ways to make college more affordable and expand access to more students,” Brown said.