By Jenny Smulson, Vice President of Government Relations, AJCU



The “back to school” season is a time of wonder and excitement for returning students and those who are beginning their college years on our Jesuit college and university campuses. But, for many, it is also a time of stress as the reality of the cost of attending college sets in. And this stress is exacerbated as we begin another school year under the shadow of the Covid pandemic.

Congress is a busy place in September too. Before the fiscal year ends on the 30th, the House and the Senate are charged with funding the government for the next fiscal year. At the same time, Members are trying to navigate two other important spending packages, which will make an impact on all post-secondary students, and those who aspire to pursue a degree beyond a high school diploma.

The Senate has passed a $1 trillion traditional infrastructure bill (e.g., funding for roads, bridges, transportation), as well as a $3.5 trillion budget resolution focused on “human” infrastructure (e.g., education, child care, health care). The House has also passed a $3.5 trillion budget resolution and is taking steps this week to “operationalize” it by developing legislation based on the “instructions” or proposed spending levels received by relevant Committees. These “instructions” mean they can change policy to spend an amount allocated to a particular Committee.

The higher education community is keenly interested in the work of the House Education and Labor Committee and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which are tasked with spending over $700 billion (over ten years) on education programs along the learning continuum, including free child care, universal pre-school, free community college, funding for under-resourced institutions, and an increase in the maximum Pell Grant.

AJCU has recommended that Senators and Representatives double the maximum Pell Grant to $13,000 in this budget reconciliation process. The presidents of AJCU and our Jesuit colleges and universities have urged Members to prioritize this policy proposal above all others in the context of an investment in education. While the House Education and Labor Committee mark-up this past week included a significantly lower amount for the Pell Grant, we are continuing our push to increase the maximum Pell as the reconciliation process continues.

AJCU presidents launched their advocacy engagement for Pell Grants back in mid-June. Many presidents participated in our first-ever virtual Hill advocacy day, by meeting with their Representative and Senators to make this request of them early and forcefully. What compelled them to engage so directly on this issue? Our presidents have a fundamental understanding of the power of the Pell Grant to increase access to and success in postsecondary education, including Jesuit colleges and universities. Further, they are deeply committed to investing in their students, especially those with economic need, who have historically been underrepresented at their schools and in higher education.

In the United States, there are approximately 7 million students who receive a federal Pell Grant, 28,000 of whom attend Jesuit colleges and universities, comprising nearly a quarter of our student population. Jesuit colleges and universities are partners with the federal government in supporting students on their campuses, committing over $2 billion annually in institutional aid to help students realize their dreams of obtaining a Jesuit higher education. Coupled with our institutional aid, the Pell Grant makes a Jesuit higher education possible for many students who would otherwise find our schools out of reach.

This investment in students results in measurable benefits. Our average six-year graduation rates are well above the national average for both the Pell and non-Pell populations. What does that translate to? For those who complete their degrees, they may realize lower student debt levels, find themselves more quickly on a career track, and realize higher income gains over the course of their lives.

In 2020, postsecondary educational enrollment declines were most severe for low-income students and students of color. That is an opportunity lost for individuals and for our nation. According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, “The U.S. economy misses out on $956 billion a year as a result of postsecondary attainment gaps by economic status and race/ethnicity.” Successful completion of a 4-year degree is the most secure pathway toward greater earnings.

Through multiple op-eds and other forms of advocacy, AJCU members have said with confidence and conviction that maximizing the Pell Grant will yield short-term and long-term benefits by addressing access and affordability, and by contributing toward a more just and equitable distribution of gains (e.g., income, health, civic engagement) for the people of our nation. They understand that significantly increasing the Pell Grant will create opportunities in the future for students at all types of institutions and positively impact economic equity in our nation, particularly in the post-pandemic era.

AJCU presidents have written articles for local and national news outlets, blogged, written to Congress, and engaged their students to encourage them to lend their voices to this issue (see links below for a full list). There is an urgency to this work. They have seen the impact of the pandemic on their student populations, on individuals and families, and they understand the role that Pell Grants play in keeping those students enrolled.

This work is an outgrowth of our Jesuit commitment to the common good and an example of a faith that does justice. Expanding opportunities for education and learning, investing in the success of all of our students, and striving for a more equitable community are the outcomes we hope will result from our advocacy to double the maximum Pell Grant.

Doubling Pell Grants Would Be a Modern GI Bill to Boost the Economy
Tania Tetlow, J.D., President, Loyola University New Orleans

University President: Make College a Reality. Double Federal Pell Grants.
Dr. Eugene J. Cornacchia, President, Saint Peter’s University

Double Pell Grant to Boost Access, Achievement
Rev. Joseph Marina, S.J., President, The University of Scranton

Jesuit Colleges Are Committed to Serving Low-Income Students. If Joe Biden Doubled the Pell Grant, We Could Serve More.
Rev. Michael J. Garanzini, S.J. President, AJCU

The Necessity of Doubling Pell Grant Awards
Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., President, Fordham University

Why Doubling the Pell Grant is Good Public Policy
Dr. Linda LeMura, President, Le Moyne College