Policy Options for Pell Reform: The CBO’s Analysis

The federal Pell Grant program has grown dramatically over the past decade, due to both the effects of the Great Recession and changes to the program that made it more generous to students from low- to middle-income families. As spending has more than doubled since 2006 (although it slightly fell in the most recent year for which data is available), some in Congress have grown concerned about the sustainability of the program. This led Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, to request a review of Pell spending and information about the likely costs of various reform options going forward.

The Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan agency charged with “scoring” fiscal proposals, released a report yesterday summarizing the estimated fiscal effects of a host of changes to the Pell program. (Inside Higher Ed has a nice summary of the report.) While the goal of the requesting Senator may have been to find ways to lower spending on the program by better targeting awards, the CBO also looked at proposals to make the Pell program more generous and to simplify Pell eligibility.

While I’m glad that the CBO looked at the fiscal effects of various changes to restrict or expand eligibility, I think that Congress will make those decisions on a year-to-year basis (pending the availability of funds) instead of thinking forward over a ten-year window. However, it is notable that the proposal to restrict Pell Grants to students with an expected family contribution of zero—by far the students with the greatest need—would only cut expenditures by $10 billion per year, or just over one-fourth of the program cost. I am more interested in the CBO’s cost estimates for simplifying eligibility criteria. They propose two possible reforms, which are discussed in more detail on pages 24 and 25 of the report.

Proposal 1: Simplify the FAFSA by only requiring students and their families to provide income data from tax returns instead of pulling in asset and income data from other sources. This would slightly affect targeting, as some resources would be unknown to the government, but research has shown that basic income data predicts Pell awards well for most students. The CBO estimates that about two percent more students would receive the Pell Grant and that about one in five students would see an increase of approximately $350. This is estimated to increase program costs by $1 billion per year, or less than 3% of the annual program cost.

Proposal 2: Tie Pell eligibility to federal poverty guidelines instead of EFCs. I am quite interested in this idea, as it would greatly streamline the financial aid eligibility process—but I’m not sure whether I think it is the best idea out there. Basically, the federal poverty guidelines are calculated based on income, household size, and state of residency, and could be used to calculate Pell eligibility. This is indirectly done right now through means-tested benefit programs; for example, eligibility for the free/reduced price lunch program is based on the poverty line (130% for free, 185% for reduced). Since students who have a family member receiving FRL can qualify for a simpler FAFSA already, this may not be such a leap. The CBO estimates that about one in ten students would have their Pell status affected by their model option and that costs would fall by $1.4 billion per year, but the percent of poverty used (up to 250%) would likely be changed in the legislative process.

In the alternatives section of the report (page 26), the CBO discusses committing Pell funds to students in middle and high school—noting that such a program could increase academic and financial preparation for postsecondary. This sounds very similar to a paper that Sara Goldrick-Rab and I wrote on a possible early commitment Pell program (a citation would have been nice!), but they don’t provide any estimates of the costs of that program. We estimate in our paper that the program will cost about $1.5 billion per year, with the federal government likely to at least break even in the long run via increased tax payments (something not discussed in any of the policy options in the brief).

I’m glad to see this report on possible options to Pell reform and I hope that they will continue to get requests to score and examine innovative ideas to improve and reform the delivery of financial aid.

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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