This fall, the U.S. Congress is negotiating major legislation related to infrastructure and budget reconciliation. Although there may be debate over the details, both parties agree that America should invest in its roads, bridges, ports, electric grids, wireless systems and other critical infrastructure.
Another vital component to our infrastructure that merits attention is higher education. There is no greater conduit to economic prosperity than a college degree and the Pell Grant program serves as both a bridge and a highway for millions of low- and moderate-income students hoping to realize a brighter future through a college degree.
Currently, the House Education & Labor Committee is proposing a $500 increase in the maximum award amount. Because the Pell Grant continues open doors for the next generation of college-aged Americans, we urge lawmakers to seize this opportunity and double the maximum grant award to $13,000.
This basic building block of federal financial aid has its roots in the Great Society program championed by a Texan: President Lyndon B. Johnson. Pell Grants are typically awarded to students with a total family income of under $50,000, however most go to those with incomes below $20,000. Because Texas is the second largest and third youngest state, Pell Grants play a disproportionately significant role in the finances of over 400,000 of our state’s students.
At UT institutions, over half of our full-time students receive the current maximum Pell award of $6,495. Students can put these funds toward tuition, textbooks, accommodations, and other living expenses. Even though UT’s tuition and fee rates are some of the lowest in the country, Pell grants need to go further. Instead, our students are currently taking on an average of $20,863 in loan debt to complete their undergraduate education.
Increasing Pell Grants is a win-win for Texas. Recipients who graduated from UT institutions between 2009 and 2018 have generated more than $28 billion of earnings in our state. Unlike many states, Texas is holding on to its graduates in record numbers, so investing more in Pell Grants produces more outstanding graduates, who in turn help grow our economy. Furthermore, Pell Grants increase access for students of color and first-generation students. More than half of Black and Hispanic students at UT institutions receive them. Doubling Pell awards would meaningfully increase educational access for Texans, while limiting student debt and enhancing economic mobility for all recipients.
Pell Grants are hand-ups, not handouts. We recognize that simply increasing access is not enough. Universities need to supplement federal aid with state and local programs that provide extra financial assistance, including mentoring, tutoring, and networking resources for Pell students.
For example, at UT Austin, the Texas Advance Commitment provides free tuition for Pell students, meaning that their grant can be used for other living expenses. Meanwhile, the UT for Me – supported by the Dell Scholars program directly targets Pell-eligible students with financial coaching, internship planning, textbook credits and even a new laptop. This program is new, and UT Austin is partnering with the Dell Foundation to share learnings and best practices developed in order to help scale these efforts across the country. Nationally, we need more programs like these to better amplify federal programs like the Pell Grant.
America and Texas are growing. If current trends continue, our state’s population could double in the next 30 years. It’s more important than ever that we cultivate a homegrown workforce to compete in the global, knowledge-based economy. Because talents, skill and aptitude transcend any particular class, race or gender, expanding access and cultivating excellence means unlocking the incredible potential that resides in every Texas community. Pell Grants, amplified by state and local programs, have the capacity to help cultivate societal uplift, create jobs, grow the economy and advance knowledge. That’s why it is critical Congress act on this distinctive opportunity to increase funding for the program.
Jay Hartzell is the president of The University of Texas at Austin.
James Milliken is the chancellor of The University of Texas System.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle.