Pell Grant recipients on the rise as federal program faces challenges

Pell Grants awarded to record-high number of students in the College.

By Alison Sider

Pell Grant assistance to students in the College is on the rise, according to the University’s Office of College Aid.

The University had 638 Pell Grant recipients during the last academic year, up from 547 the previous year, said Alicia Reyes, director of college aid.

Pell Grants make up a significant source of funding for U of C students, relative to college students at peer institutions. During the 2006–2007 year, 11.4 percent of U of C undergraduates received Pell Grants, compared to 8.1 percent at Harvard, 8.8 percent at Northwestern, and 9.6 percent at Yale.

Recent national trends indicate that the number of students applying for Pell Grants across the country is on the rise.

As of July, 800,000 more students had applied for Pell Grants than at that point in the previous year, according to documents provided by the U.S. Department of Education. The information predicted that at the current rate of increase, this academic year will see the highest annual increase in Pell Grant recipients in five years. Over half the additional grant recipients will have family incomes of $30,000 or less.

Although applicants to the College are currently applying for financial aid for the upcoming year and aid projections are not yet available, Reyes said that she expects some increase in financial aid requests.

“Obviously, a lot of people are losing employment, becoming under- or unemployed. When these things have happened in the past, we’ve seen more appeals, seen more students becoming eligible for aid,” she said. “What’s happened over the past year is that we have a needier aid population.”

Reyes anticipates that the introduction of the Odyssey Scholarship Program, which replaces student loans with grant money for students with family incomes under $60,000, will increase the number of students at the College eligible for Pell Grants.

But the Pell Grant program may soon face difficulties. Bush administration officials warned Congress in September that the Pell Grant program may require an additional $6 billion in funding next year. Pell Grants, which do not have to be repaid, comprise one of the largest sources of Federal aid for low-income undergraduates, ranging from $400 to $4,731, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

As the number of college-bound students continues to rise, the influx of undergraduates will strain the Pell Grant program, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, a body of over 3,000 colleges and universities that works to remove financial barriers to students pursuing higher education. The Department of Education also noted that there has been an increase in older applicants, which suggests that the uncertain job market may be giving people an incentive to go to school to develop new skills.

Last week, President Bush signed a bill which provided an additional $2.5 billion to keep the Pell Grant program running through the end of this academic year.

Reyes said that in the past the College has compensated for grants that failed to meet student need. While Pell Grant funding will most likely meet student financial need this year, she said, the financial aid office will continue to respond to increases in demonstrated financial need.