Matters of policy might not seem to fit in an issue of Connections dedicated to St. Ignatius Loyola and his (and our) cannonball moments. As we in the Jesuit family celebrate the Ignatian Year, is there a connection we can or should make to our advocacy efforts?

As many of you know, the Ignatian Year marks a milestone anniversary: 500 years since the conversion and transformation of St. Ignatius. The International Association of Jesuit Universities (IAJU) has called on the Jesuit higher educational community to “go from profession to purpose, to make a deeper reflection of [students’] talents, their passions and the world’s greatest needs.”

Taking time for reflection is always a good thing. In our policy work, we often don’t get to do so. But when we do, we benefit from the clarity of purpose that comes with discernment. So, with reflection in mind, let’s take a moment to consider more deeply the program that is at the heart of our advocacy at AJCU: the federal Pell Grant program.

Interestingly, this year also marks the 50th anniversary of Pell Grants. Created in 1972 as the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant and funded with $47.5 million the following year, the program initially supported 170,000 students across the United States. Since that time, the program was renamed (in 1980) to honor the late Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI), who had determined many years earlier that there should be a federal program like the G.I. Bill that would serve all students with economic need and allow them to choose which institution best fulfilled their educational purpose and goal.

Today, the program provides support to approximately seven million students, with a maximum amount of $6,895 per grant. Pell remains “the single largest source of federal grant aid supporting post-secondary education students” (Blackwell’s).

During the 2019-20 academic year, 34% of all undergraduate students across the country received a Pell Grant. According to the Lumina Foundation, “Thirty-one percent of college students come from families at or below the Federal Poverty Guideline. The majority (53%) come from families at or below twice the poverty level.” A recent report from NAICU (National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities) notes that “private, nonprofit colleges and universities enroll roughly the same percentage of Pell recipients as do public institutions,” reinforcing that there are different paths toward pursuing a higher education.

And while the Pell Grant is a powerful tool, it does not guarantee equal outcomes. Pell Grant recipients face a tougher road, compared to their peers from families with higher incomes. Pell Grant recipients will graduate with higher debt and at lower rates than those peers. The promise of greater equity is one of the motivating factors for AJCU in our push to double the funding for the Federal Pell Grant maximum. A doubling of the current Pell Grant to a maximum of $13,000 annually would reduce borrowing for those eligible students, likely reducing economic stress and leading to better outcomes, including higher graduation rates. Students who complete their degrees are better off than those who do not, as measured by income levels, access to health care, and life expectancy, to name just a few.

Anyone who reads this column or follows the advocacy work of AJCU is familiar with Pell Grants. Does it make sense to consider the program in the context of this Ignatian year? I think it does! The Pell Grant is a catalyst for change and opportunity—much like the cannonball was for St. Ignatius. For many students, the Pell Grant can be what opens the door to the world of learning and exploration. It welcomes new experiences that might invite their own personal cannonball moments of conversion.

Senator Pell, the father of the program, once said, “The strength of the United States is not the gold in Fort Knox or the weapons of mass destruction that we have, but the sum total of the education and the character of our people” (HHS via Google Books). His tenacity and vision led to the creation of the program that now bears his name and one that continues to stand the test of time.

AJCU’s commitment to the Pell Grant is rooted in a desire to expand opportunities for students to explore all quality post-secondary educational opportunities, including, of course, those at Jesuit colleges and universities. Pell Grants redefine what is possible and open new paths for unleashing each person’s potential.

Education and learning are pursuits that have value. What awaits the student who arrives on one of our campuses? Is it there where they will encounter transformative change? Such “cannonball moments” must be possible for all students, regardless of need, which is why the Pell Grant program is critical. It provides access and allows our Jesuit institutions to remain committed partners with our students to create a world that is more compassionate, more peaceful, and more just.

By Jenny Smulson, Vice President of Government Relations, AJCU