Tucked in the omnibus spending bill signed by President Trump this week were several measures aimed at aiding marginalized students as well as historically Black colleges and universities.
Congress simplified the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, extended the Pell Grant program and wiped away federal loans historically Black colleges and universities took on to pay for improvements and repairs. More than 40 HBCUs owe upward of $1 billion borrowed through a program aimed at financing improvements.
Howard University is not part of this program, but President Wayne A. I. Frederick says schools that did participate built paying back the debt into their programming.
“Canceling that debt means that it can have a very significant impact for the HBCUs who do participate in the program,” he says.
The bill also simplified FAFSA, removing dozens of questions and making it easier for students to apply for aid. The application has been “problematic” for minority and low-income students, Frederick says.
The current form requires students to provide information about both parents, he says, for example, which is difficult and frustrating for some people. Upon trying to start school, these students may find out their financial aid package hasn’t been formalized because the expected family contribution hasn’t been determined, he says.
“[FAFSA] was a significant barrier,” he says. “And so simplifying that form was also a very, very major move, in my opinion.”
There are also changes to the Pell Grant program, which helps low-income students avoid loans when heading to college. That money doesn't have to be paid back, but experts have criticized how the amount given in Pell Grants is calculated. This new legislation ties it to federal poverty guidelines so that students know beforehand how much they could potentially get.
Frederick says he hopes the changes to the Pell Grant and FAFSA encourage lower-income students to pursue higher education — but there’s still a gap in information about these programs.
Nearly $2.6 billion in Pell Grant money was unclaimed in the 2018-2019 school year, according to Forbes. Without receiving information and encouragement around applying for federal programs, many students don’t complete their FAFSA and don’t attend college as a result, he says.
“That guidance is also very significant,” he says. “And so I still worry that while this is helpful, it may not get to the people that it benefits the most in terms of the information and education about it.”
If the amount of Pell Grants available each year doesn’t increase alongside the rising costs of higher education, more students could end up taking out loans, Frederick says.
One crisis that colleges and universities are facing is a decline in the number of high school graduates enrolling in colleges. And fewer international students are pursuing higher education in the U.S., which is lowering revenues, he says.
Frederick says he’s concerned these issues could cause “a significant pinch on lower-income students,” increasing the number of loans they take on in the next five years.
Another significant change to the Pell Grant program is lifting a 26-year-old ban that makes people who are incarcerated ineligible to receive the grants. Recidivism is a key issue, he says, and helping formerly incarcerated people find gainful employment is “critical.”
“There are lots of prison systems now that have higher education components through community colleges and others,” he says. “And I think it's extremely important that we continue to provide that opportunity. And this Pell Grant access is certainly one way of expanding that.”
This segment aired on December 31, 2020.