Policy Priorities to Strengthen the Federal Pell Grant Program

ACCT recently hosted a 3-part webinar series on strengthening the federal Pell Grant program to better support community college students by making college more affordable and accessible.

The Pell Grant program is the bedrock of federal financial aid, providing need-based aid to low-income college students. The program was established in 1970s to help all students attend college regardless of income. Today, Pell Grants continue to support low-income college students; however, the program falls short of meeting the true needs of students and must be improved to better support access and equity in postsecondary education.

Recently, ACCT hosted a 3-part webinar series, Enhancing the Federal Pell Grant Program to Maximize Student Success, highlighting the ways community college trustees and leaders can advocate to improve the program. The series covered three of ACCT’s advocacy priorities aimed at strengthening Pell Grants to improve postsecondary education access and equity: 1) increase the maximum Pell Grant award to meet students’ true cost of attendance; 2) expand eligibility to include students participating in short-term credential programs; and 3) expand educational opportunities for incarcerated students through Second Chance Pell.

The webinar series included perspectives from experts in the field, advocates, college leaders, and students. The full series can be viewed on-demand, here. Below is a synopsis of each priority area:

Increase the Maximum Pell Award to Meet Students’ True College Costs

The purchasing power of the Pell Grant has been steadily decreasing since the program was first created, when it covered over 70% of a student’s college costs. Today, the maximum Pell award of $6,345 only covers around 30% of a student’s postsecondary education expenses due to rising costs of tuition and living expenses, including housing, food, and transportation.

As a result of the decreased purchasing power of Pell and increased student expenses, nearly three-quarters of community college students have unmet financial need to pay for their full costs of college. In 2016, the most recent year of available data, on average, community college students had about $7,000 of unmet need, after grant aid. Furthermore, unmet need is greater among Black, Hispanic, first-generation, and financially independent students.[1]

In recent years, the Pell Grant program has benefited from small increases through the federal appropriations process. However, modest increases in the maximum award fall short of meeting students’ needs. Several legislative proposals have been introduced to substantially increase the Pell award, such as the House Democrat’s College Affordability Act which would enact an immediate $625 increase to the award and further increase the maximum to $8,460 over the next decade.

Improve Access and Affordability of Workforce Training Programs with Short-Term Pell

In today’s economy, nearly two-thirds of jobs require some form of education or training beyond the high school level. In light of this, community colleges often work with local businesses to ensure students can access shorter-term certificates and licenses. Notably, the current pandemic has increased interest in these programs. In a recent Strada Education Network survey, 62% of American adults reported they prefer non-degree or skills-based training when pursuing further education during the pandemic.

Under current law, however, students only qualify for Pell Grants if they enroll in a course that is at least 600 clock hours or 15 weeks of instruction, leaving many students pursuing short-term programs without access to valuable financial aid. Short-term credentials help students earn necessary education and skills for in-demand fields, such as manufacturing, health care, information technology and computer science, education, and business administration. While some students only seek to earn a credential, many use short-term programs as a stepping stone on an educational pathway towards an associate degree and beyond.

Under the former Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Education created a pilot program to allow a selected group of colleges to award Pell Grants to students participating in short-term programs. However, the program was not renewed under the current Trump administration and has since ended. More recently, legislative proposals have been introduced to expand Pell Grant eligibility for students participating in short-term programs. ACCT has endorsed the JOBS Act, led by Sens. Kaine (D-VA) and Portman (R-OH) and Reps. Richmond (D-LA) and Gonzalez  (R-OH), which extends Pell Grant eligibility to short-term education and training programs that are at least 150 clock hours or over 8 weeks of instruction.

Expand Educational Opportunity for Incarcerated Students through Second Chance Pell

Pell grants once helped fund postsecondary education for many incarcerated students. However, as part of the 1994 “Crime Bill,” Congress banned the use of Pell Grants for incarcerated students. This ban persists today despite experience and research showing that access to postsecondary education is critical for incarcerated individuals to secure jobs, earn higher wages, and avoid recidivism. Furthermore, expanded educational opportunities in correctional facilities is associated with increased safety and climate.

There is a great need to expand educational opportunities to incarcerated individuals and ensure they have the necessary financial support to participate. According to U.S. Department of Education Data, nearly 60% of adults do not complete any education during their incarceration. Only 9% complete a certificate or associate degree. Without access to education, incarcerated individuals are denied the opportunity to gain knowledge and skills necessary to secure gainful employment upon release.

Despite the legislative ban, limited opportunities currently exist for incarcerated students to access Pell Grants. Under the former Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Education created the Second Chance Pell pilot program to allow a selected group of colleges to offer Pell Grants to incarcerated students participating in programs at correctional facilities. The current Trump administration expanded the Second Chance Pell pilot, which currently includes over 80 community colleges. Legislative proposals to fully repeal the ban and fully restore Pell eligibility for incarcerated students include the REAL Act, led by Sen. Schatz (D-HI) and Rep. Davis (D-IL).

As trustees and college leaders prepare for the upcoming Community College National Legislative Summit, ACCT will be releasing more tools and educational opportunities to learn about advocating to improve the Pell Grant program and other priorities for the sector. For more information, please visit

Allison Beer is the Senior Policy Analyst at ACCT and can be reached at

Katie Brown is the Director of Government Relations at ACCT and can be reached at

José Miranda is the Senior Government Relations Associate at ACCT and can be reached at

[1] ACCT analysis of National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, 2016

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