Legislative priorities to make higher education more affordable in 2021

We need Congress to take bold, bipartisan action to make life-changing degrees easier and more affordable to get.

Blog Post |

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the need has never been greater for policy change to make college more affordable and accessible. Community colleges, serving some of the most vulnerable students, have seen a 13 percent drop in freshman enrollment, and approximately 40 percent of students at four-year colleges have experienced food insecurity since March of last year. With slim margins of Democratic control in both chambers, this Congress needs to greatly improve college affordability in a bipartisan way for present and future college students.

The following recommendations are actions that the 117th Congress can take this session to help students obtain an affordable, life-changing degree:

  • Double the maximum Pell Grant award, restoring some of the purchasing power that it had when first established. In 1972, a Congress established the Pell Grant as the basis of financial aid, available to low and middle income students. Upon its creation, a maximum Pell Grant could pay for approximately 75 percent of an average Bachelor’s Degree at a public, four-year institution. Now, the purchasing power of a Pell Grant is at a 40-year low, only covering about 28% of tuition and fees at a public four-year college. Congress should double the maximum Pell Grant award so that it pays for over half of tuition and fees at the average public institution, and they should peg the maximum award to the rate of inflation each year so that the purchasing power will not decrease as quickly over time.

  • Pass another COVID relief package with more emergency grants for students’ basic needs. The two previous COVID relief bills provided a combined $34 billion for higher education. That’s short of the $120 billion that institutions and advocates requested. However, they have helped institutions adapt to a mostly online setting and will allow them to continue operations in the short-run. An important measure in the relief packages is funding allocated to each institution of higher education, half of which is earmarked as emergency grants for students. These emergency grants have helped millions with demonstrated unmet needs cover unexpected expenses, such as a flight home or trips to the grocery store after dorms and dining halls suddenly closed. It is essential that when the next COVID relief is considered, Congress dramatically increases funding to institutions, and provides additional emergency grants.

  • Change stimulus check allocation so that adult dependents aren’t left out. The stereotype of upper middle class college students taking classes at a residential liberal arts school is woefully out of date. In fact, the opposite is true for many, as most students are considered nontraditional, which could mean they are at least 25 years old when they start college, part-time students, parenting, or working full-time jobs on top of their degree. s. For these students, the language in the CARES Act excluding adult dependents – those age 18 or older whose parents still claimed them on their tax returns – from receiving stimulus checks has been harmful. While those students may be getting some help from their parents, plenty are living more or less independently by paying their own rent and day to day bills. Furthermore, as students moved home with the closure of college campuses, their families had increased costs but did not receive a check to support that older child unlike with their younger siblings. Congress should ensure that any new stimulus bill should send these checks to adult dependents.

  • Modify SNAP so that more college students can qualify. A Department of Agriculture rule implemented in 2020 made the work requirements for the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP) stricter than they had been in the past. Because of this rule, college students could only qualify for SNAP benefits if they work for at least 20 hours per week, have a child 6 years old or younger, or participate in a work-study program. Congress made a short-term adjustment to SNAP in December, extending benefits to college students who qualify for work study and to students with an expected family contribution of $0. In March, Congress waived the work requirement for adults without dependents, but many college students were excluded. The result is that students are shut out of receiving SNAP benefits or have to put their education on hold in order to feed themselves and their families. Waiving the work requirement for college students that already meet the low-income threshold permanently would make it possible for them to put food on the table without having to make this difficult decision.

  • Reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA), including provisions that increase college affordability and access. HEA has not been reauthorized since 2008, even though this process was intended to happen every four to six years. If Congress comprehensively reauthorizes HEA this session, it can make college more affordable by making big changes in how federal student loans are repaid, how grants and other aid to students work, and ensure high-quality programs are open to all students who have the talent and drive to pursue them. Congress can start by implementing many of the measures included in the College Affordability Act, such as regulating for-profit colleges, streamlining financial aid, increasing transparency and the sharing of data about colleges, and and creating federal-state partnerships to increase college access for low-income students.