Federal Pell Grant Program of the Higher Education Act: Background and Reauthorization
Federal Pell Grant Program
of the Higher Education Act:
Background and Reauthorization
Updated January 30, 2008
Analyst in Education Policy
Domestic Social Policy Division
Federal Pell Grant Program of the Higher Education
Act: Background and Reauthorization
The Federal Pell Grant program, authorized by the Higher Education Act
(HEA), is the single largest source of grant aid for postsecondary education
attendance funded by the federal government. It is estimated to provide nearly $14
billion in FY2007 to about 5.3 million undergraduate students. For FY2007, the
maximum Pell Grant was funded at $4,310. With the expiration of the HEA, the
Congress is likely to debate what changes may be needed in the Pell Grant program
as part of its consideration of HEA reauthorization.
Pell Grants are need-based aid intended to be the foundation for all federal
student aid awarded to undergraduates (eligibility is limited to undergraduates).
There is no absolute income threshold that determines who is eligible and who is
ineligible for Pell Grants. Nevertheless, Pell Grant recipients are primarily low-
income. In FY1999, an estimated over 90% of Pell Grant recipients considered to
be dependent upon their parents had total parental income below $40,000. Of Pell
Grant recipients considered to be independent of their parents, over 90% had total
income below $30,000.
Among the issues that may be debated by the Congress during the HEA
reauthorization process is the extent to which the Pell Grant program continues to act
as the foundation for all federal need-based aid for undergraduates. Concern has
been raised about the diminished role that the Pell Grant may be playing. For
example, need-based aid recipients are as likely to borrow subsidized loans under the
Federal Stafford Loan program as they are to receive Pell Grants. This overarching
issue may trigger consideration of various steps to increase the amount of Pell Grant
aid flowing to the neediest students. This might include deliberation over raising the
Pell Grant minimum award (those with the smallest grants are the least needy of Pell
recipients), converting the program into an entitlement possibly with higher annual
maximum grants. Converting the program to an entitlement is also seen by some as
a response to the periodic uncertainty about the adequacy of the annual appropriation
to meet program costs and resulting funding shortfalls. Other issues that may engage
the Congress include whether some element of academic merit should be introduced
into the process of determining Pell eligibility and level of Pell assistance.
This report will be updated to reflect major legislative action to reauthorize the
Pell Grant program.
In troduction ......................................................1
How the Program Works............................................2
Annual Appropriation and Program Costs...........................7
Authorized Maximums and Appropriated Maximums.................8
Surpluses and Shortfalls........................................10
FY2001-FY2005: The Growth of the Shortfall..................11
FY2006: Eliminating the Funding Shortfall....................13
Characteristics of Recipients........................................14
Type and Control.............................................19
Role of the Pell Grant.............................................20
Pell Grant Recipients and Other Federal Aid........................22
Possible Reauthorization Issues......................................24
List of Figures
Figure 1. Authorized Maximum Grants, Appropriated Maximum Grants,
and Average Awards, FY1973-FY2007...........................10
Figure 2. Estimated Number of Pell Grant Recipients, FY1973-FY2007......16
Figure 3. Percentage of Tuition, Fees, Room and Board Covered by the
Appropriated Maximum Pell Grant, FY1973-FY2006................21
List of Tables
Table 1. History of Pell Grant Appropriations and Program Costs,
Table 2. History of Authorized Maximum Grants, Appropriated Maximum
Grants, and Average Awards, FY1973-FY2007......................9
Table 3. FY2001-FY2005 Pell Grant Shortfalls.........................13
Table 4. Estimated Annual Number of Pell Grant Recipients,
Table 5. Estimated Pell Grant Participation by Income, 2000-2003..........18
Table 6. Estimated Distribution of Undergraduates and Pell Grant
Recipients by Enrollment Status, 2000-2003........................19
Table 7. Estimated Distribution of Undergraduates and Pell Grant
Recipients by Type and Control of Enrolling Institution, 2000-2003.....20
Table 8. Pell Grant Recipients’ Participation Rates and Average Awards
in Other Aid Programs, FY2003.................................23
Table 9. Estimated Impact of Increasing the Minimum Pell Grant for
Award Year 2007-2008........................................26
Federal Pell Grant Program
of the Higher Education Act:
Background and Reauthorization
The Federal Pell Grant program, authorized by Title IV of the Higher Education
Act (HEA), is the single largest source of grant aid for postsecondary education
attendance funded by the federal government. It is estimated to have provided
approximately $14 billion to about 5.3 million undergraduate students in FY2007.
Pell Grants are need-based aid intended to be the foundation for all federal student
aid awarded to undergraduates. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) estimates
that, in FY2006, Pell Grants constituted approximately 17% of all federally supported
aid, including grants, loans, and work opportunities, that benefit postsecondary
education students at all levels.1
The statutory authority for the Pell Grant program was most recently
reauthorized by the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 (P.L. 110-84)
through FY2017. However, a comprehensive reauthorization of the HEA has not
occurred since the HEA Amendments of 1998 and still awaits congressional
attention. Most recently, the HEA was amended and extended by the Third Higher
Education Extension Act of 2007 (P.L. 110-109) until March 31, 2008.2 As it
deliberates on the reauthorization of the HEA, the Congress may debate what
changes, if any, to make to the Pell Grant program.
This report reviews how the program works and provides analysis of program
funding, recipients (numbers and characteristics), and the role being played by the
program in the distribution of federal student aid. It concludes with an examination
of several Pell-related issues that may be considered by the Congress in the HEA
reauthorization process. This report will be updated to reflect major legislative
action to reauthorize the Pell Grant program.
1 Percentage calculated from data presented in U.S. Department of Education, Fiscal Year
2008 Budget Summary, p. 54. Total federal student aid excludes $31 billion in consolidation
loans under which borrowers consolidate prior loans. If consolidation loans are included,
the Pell percentage falls to approximately 12%.
2 The original termination date for most of the provisions of the HEA was September 30,
2003. This termination date was extended through FY2004 by the General Education
Provisions Act (GEPA). A series of subsequent measures — P.L. 108-366, P.L. 109-81, P.L.
How the Program Works
This section provides an overview of the structure of the Pell Grant program and
the process through which grants are made to students. It describes student
eligibility, the award rules for determining students’ grants, program funding, and the
role played by postsecondary institutions in the program.
Briefly, the Pell Grant program provides grants (i.e., aid that does not have to
be repaid) to needy undergraduates. In any year, federal funding is available to3
ensure that all eligible students attending eligible institutions receive Pell Grants.
To apply for these grants, students must complete the Free Application for Federal
Student Aid (FAFSA) with requested financial and other information, and submit it
to a “central processor” under contract with ED. The central processor provides each
applicant with a Student Aid Record (SAR) and each institution of higher education
(IHE) designated by the applicant with an Institutional Student Information Record
(ISIR); these documents contain the information submitted on the FAFSA and the
calculated expected family contribution (EFC). The EFC is what is expected to be
contributed by the student and his or her family toward postsecondary education
expenses (the EFC is described in detail below).
Pell Grants are portable, that is, the grant aid follows the student to the eligible
postsecondary education institutions in which they enroll. Institutions that receive
valid SARs or valid ISIRs for students meeting all other program eligibility
requirements must disburse Pell Grants to them. The size of the grants is based,
principally, on the financial resources that students and their families are expected
to contribute toward postsecondary education expenses, and the maximum grant that
the annual appropriations process sets for the program.
To be eligible for a Pell Grant, a student must meet requirements that apply to
federal student aid in general and requirements specific to the Pell Grant program.
Among the requirements generally applicable to federal student aid are the
!Students must be enrolled for the purpose of earning a degree or
certificate at an eligible institution.
!Students must have a high school diploma or the recognized
equivalent.4 Absent such diploma or its equivalent, students must
3 As explored below, if costs for the Pell Grant program exceed the current fiscal year’s
appropriation, additional funds can be used from the subsequent year’s appropriation. This
process of ensuring that grant payments will be made has led some to liken the program to
a “quasi entitlement.” The issue of making the program into an actual entitlement is
discussed later in this report.
4 Students completing home schooling as recognized under state law are considered to be
demonstrate an ability to benefit from postsecondary education by
passing an examination approved by ED.
!Students have to maintain satisfactory academic progress while
enrolled in postsecondary education in order to be eligible for federal
student aid. Satisfactory progress is delineated by policies
developed by each participating IHE.
!Conviction for possession or sale of drugs can disqualify students for
federal student aid.5
!Students are ineligible if they are in default on a Title IV student
loan or have failed to repay an overpayment on a Title IV grant.
!Students must meet citizenship requirements.6
!Males between 18 and 25 years of age must register with the
selective service system in order to eligible for federal student aid.
Pell-specific requirements include the following:
!Full-time and part-time7 undergraduates8 are eligible to receive Pell
!There is no statutory limit on the number of years in which students
can receive grants.
!Students who are incarcerated in a federal or state penal institution
are ineligible for Pell Grants.
!The program provides assistance only to financially needy students
as determined under the program’s award rules (see below).
Key Concepts. An eligible student’s annual Pell Grant is determined on the
basis of a set of award rules. Certain concepts are key to an understanding of the
application of these award rules.
Appropriated Maximum Pell Grant. The appropriated maximum Pell
Grant is specified in the annual appropriations legislation for the U.S. Department of
Education. That legislation appropriates funding for the Pell Grant program and sets
the maximum award that can be made during the fiscal year. The Revised
5 For additional information on drug convictions and student aid eligibility see CRS Report
RS21824, Student Eligibility: Drug Convictions and Federal Financial Aid, by Charmaine
Mercer and Laura L. Monagle.
6 Generally, students must be U.S. citizens or U.S. permanent residents. Individuals with
several other entrance statuses can qualify for aid. Individuals in the U.S. on a temporary
basis, such as those with a student visa or an exchange visitor visa are not eligible for federal
7 Less than half-time students are eligible.
8 Students enrolled on at least a half-time basis in a postbaccalaureate program required by
a state for K-12 teacher certification or licensure are also eligible. Such a program cannot
not lead to a graduate degree and the enrolling higher education institutions must not offer
baccalaureate degrees in education.
Continuing Appropriations Resolution, 2007, set the maximum appropriated Pell
Grant award at $4,310 for award year 2007-2008.9 This maximum award is different
from the authorized maximum Pell Grant which is the annual maximum Pell Grant
specified in the HEA. This topic is explored further in the section below on program
Additionally, the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 included
mandatory funding for the Pell Grant program to increase the amount of the
maximum appropriated award. Specifically, the maximum appropriated award
would be increased by the following amounts:
!$490 for award years 2008-2009 and 2009-2010;
!$690 for award years 2010-2011 and 2011-2012; and
!$1,090 for award year 2012-2013.
This newly added provision specifies that any individual who qualifies for a Pell
Grant award under the provisions associated with the current appropriated maximum
Pell Grant award is eligible to receive this “add-on” amount. For example, for the
2008-2009 award year, assuming the maximum appropriated Pell Grant award
remains $4,310, an individual who qualifies for a Pell Grant award of $500 would
receive an additional $490 for a total of $990 because he/she qualified under the
provisions for a $4,310 maximum award. Thus, if a person is eligible for a Pell Grant
award of at least $200 on the basis of the appropriated maximum award, this
individual would receive the “add-on” amount in any given award year.
Expected Family Contribution. The EFC is the amount that the federal
need analysis system determines can be expected to be contributed by a student and
his or her family toward the student’s cost of education. This calculation is based on
consideration of available income and, for some families, available assets. Basic
living expenses, federal income tax liability, retirement needs, and other expenses are
taken into account in this process. Different EFC formulas are applied to three
different groups of students — those who are considered dependent on their parents
(the EFC formula assesses the financial resources of both the parents and the
dependent student); independent students with no dependents, other than a spouse,
if any; and independent students with dependents other than a spouse (e.g.,
children).10 The EFC determination utilizes financial information submitted by the
aid recipient on the FAFSA.
Cost of Attendance. The cost of attendance (COA) is a measure of a
student’s educational expenses. In general, it is the sum of tuition and fees; an
9 Award year 2007-2008 began July 1, 2007, and ends June 30, 2008.
10 For federal student aid purposes and the calculation of the EFC, an individual is
considered independent of his or her parents (i.e., parental income and assets are not
considered in determining the EFC), if the individual is at least 24 years old by December
31 of the award year, is an orphan or ward of the state (or was until age 18), is a veteran of
the armed forces or active duty military, is a graduate or professional student, is married, has
dependents other than a spouse, or is deemed independent by a financial aid officer for
“other unusual circumstances.”
allowance for books, supplies, transportation, and miscellaneous personal expenses;
and a room and board allowance.11
Award Rules. The primary Pell Grant award rule is that a student’s annual
grant is the least of the maximum appropriated Pell Grant minus EFC or COA minus
EFC.12 Additionally, by law, a Pell Grant award cannot be less than $400. For those
students whose Pell Grant would be between $200 and $400, the law provides a $400
grant. Those whose calculated Pell Grant is less than $200 receive no grant.
Prior to the enactment of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007,
there was a third award rule, tuition sensitivity, that functioned to reduce the amount
of the Pell Grant award for students attending higher education institutions with very
low tuition charges. The tuition sensitivity provision was first adopted by the Higher
Education Amendments of 1992 and was intended to protect a base amount of the
Pell Grant maximum award and make a portion of increases above that base sensitive
to tuition. More specifically, tuition sensitivity reduces the Pell Grant award received
by a small number of the low-income students who also attend institutions with very
low tuition charges. For FY2007, the only students whose Pell Grant would possibly
be reduced under tuition sensitivity are those students whose tuition charges (and any
allowances for dependent care or disability related expenses) are less than $805,
whose EFCs are 800 or less, and whose total COA is $3,500 or higher. However, this
provision was eliminated by the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007,
effective July 1, 2007.
Finally, an important feature of the Pell Grant award rules is that the grant is
determined without consideration of any other financial assistance a student may be
eligible to receive or may be receiving. This reflects the intention to make the Pell
Grant the foundation to which other assistance is added.
An eligible institution’s role in the Pell Grant program primarily involves
determining student eligibility, disbursing awards, adjusting awards to ensure that
students do not receive more assistance than they are eligible for, record keeping, and
reporting to ED.13
11 It can also include an allowance for dependent care expenses (for students with
dependents); costs associated with study abroad programs for students engaged in such
programs; expenses associated with a disability for students with disabilities; and the costs
associated with employment under a cooperative education program. Students who are less
than half-time are eligible for room and board costs for no more than three semesters, of
which no more than two can be consecutive.
12 The HEA prohibits the Pell Grant from exceeding the difference between the COA and
the EFC. This precludes the awarding of a Pell Grant in excess of what a student might need
to cover COA after taking EFC into account.
13 Much of the information in this section is based on the U.S. Department of Education’s
Federal Student Aid Handbook for 2006-2007, available on the web at [http://ifap.ed.gov/
To be eligible for HEA Title IV programs, including the Pell Grant program, an
institution must be a public or private nonprofit IHE, a proprietary postsecondary
institution, or a postsecondary vocational institution. Among other requirements14,
it must be legally authorized by its state to provide a postsecondary education, must
be accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or meet alternative
requirements, and admit as regular students only individuals with a high school
diploma or the equivalent, or individuals beyond the age of compulsory school
attendance. ED certifies an institution for participation in HEA Title IV programs
based on consideration of its institutional eligibility, administrative capacity, and
financial responsibility. The institution must then enter into a program participation
agreement with ED which delineates the requirements and responsibilities for
In addition to other Title IV eligibility requirements, a high student loan default
rate can render an institution ineligible for the Pell Grant program. This applies if an
institution is ineligible for the Federal Family Education Loan program or Direct
Loan program under HEA Title IV as a result of its loan default rate determined by
the Secretary of Education for FY1996 or subsequent fiscal years.
An eligible institution calculates a student’s Pell Grant award using the COA
and enrollment status it has determined for the student, and applying these values
with the student’s EFC to the Pell Grant payment schedules published annually by
ED. Pell Grants must be paid out in installments over the academic year. A student
receives a Pell Grant only for the payment period for which he or she is enrolled.
Generally, institutions credit a student’s account with the Pell payment to meet
unpaid tuition, fees, room, and board; any remaining Pell funds are paid directly to
the student to cover other living expenses.
Based on estimates of the funds an institution needs to cover initial Pell
payments, ED establishes an initial authorization of Pell Grant funding against which
an institution may request funds. This initial authorization level is adjusted as the
award year advances to reflect actual disbursements. Institutions can receive federal
payments for Pell awards in several different ways. For most schools, the advance
payment method is used under which an institution receives federal funds prior to
making payments to students. Schools for which ED has concerns about their ability
to meet Title IV participation requirements may be required to use the reimbursement
payment method under which the institution is paid back for funds it has disbursed
to students. In addition, the Pell Grant program pays participating institutions an
administrative cost allowance of $5 per enrolled Pell recipient.
14 For additional information on institutional eligibility and federal student aid, see CRS
Report RL31926, Institutional Eligibility for Participation in Title IV Student Aid Programs
Under the Higher Education Act: Background and Issues, by Rebecca Skinner.
The Pell Grant program is the federal government’s single largest source of
grant aid for postsecondary education students. This section reviews recent program
funding trends, exploring the difference between the annual appropriation for the
program and program costs, and the issue of annual shortfalls or surpluses in funding.
It also provides data on the appropriated maximum and authorized maximum Pell
Grants, as well as annual average grant awards.
Pell funding appropriated for a particular fiscal year is generally intended to
support awards during an award year that begins on the July 1 that falls in that fiscal
year and ends the following June 30. For example, FY2007 Pell appropriated funds
are intended principally to support awards made between July 1, 2007 and June 30,
2008. Further, Pell Grant appropriations are available for obligation over a two-year
period; for example, the FY2007 appropriation became available for obligation upon15
enactment of the FY2007 appropriations legislation and can be obligated through
September 30, 2009. As is discussed later in a separate section on surpluses and
shortfalls in the Pell Grant program, the annual Pell appropriation has been used to
meet prior year costs or carried over to meet future costs.
Annual Appropriation and Program Costs
Table 1 provides the annual appropriation by fiscal year for the Pell Grant
program and the estimated annual costs of the program. Given the possible use of
a fiscal year’s appropriation for Pell Grants for multiple award years, or the
appropriation of funds specifically to meet shortfalls from prior years, it is not
surprising that the annual appropriated amount does not precisely equal the program
costs for any year. The question of annual surpluses or shortfalls has vexed the
program on many occasions. It is considered separately below.
Table 1. History of Pell Grant Appropriations and
Program Costs, FY1973-FY2007
(dollars in millions, rounded to nearest million)
Fiscal YearAppropriationsEstimated Costs
15 P.L. 110-5, Revised Continuing Appropriations Resolution, 2007, was enacted on
February 15, 2007.
Fiscal YearAppropriationsEstimated Costs
2002 11,314 11,656
2003 11,365 12,731
2004 12,007 13,140
2005 12,365 12,718
2006 17,345 a 12,907
Sources: U.S. Department of Education, End of Year Report: 2004-2005 Title
IV/Federal Pell Grant Program; U.S. Department of Education, Fiscal Year 2008
Justifications of Appropriation Estimates to the Congress, vol. II, p. O-26.
a. This amount includes $4.3 billion in mandatory funding to eliminate the
program’s accumulated funding shortfall.
b. This amount does not include the costs of increasing the maximum Pell Grant
award from $4,050 to $4,310 for FY2007, which was enacted by P.L. 110-
Authorized Maximums and Appropriated Maximums
Although the authorizing statute sets the authorized maximum Pell award for
each year, this authorized maximum is overridden by the appropriations process that
sets the appropriated maximum award. This latter amount is the one applied in
awarding funds. The authorized maximum grant and the appropriated maximum
grant have been equal in only three instances during the program’s history (FY1975,
FY1976 and FY1979) In all other years, the appropriated maximum has been less
than the authorized maximum.
Table 2. History of Authorized Maximum Grants, Appropriated
Maximum Grants, and Average Awards, FY1973-FY2007
Fiscal YearMaximum Grant ($)Maximum Grant ($)Average Award ($)
1974 1,400 1,050 628
1975 1,400 1,400 761
1976 1,400 1,400 759
1977 1,800 1,400 758
1978 1,800 1,600 814
1979 1,800 1,800 929
1980 1,800 1,750 882
1981 1,900 1,670 849
1982 2,100 1,800 959
1983 2,300 1,800 1,014
1984 2,500 1,900 1,111
1985 2,600 2,100 1,279
1986 2,600 2,100 1,301
1987 2,300 2,100 1,303
1988 2,500 2,200 1,399
1989 2,700 2,300 1,438
1990 2,900 2,300 1,449
1991 3,100 2,400 1,530
1992 3,100 2,400 1,543
1993 3,700 2,300 1,506
1994 3,900 2,300 1,502
1995 4,100 2,340 1,515
1996 4,300 2,470 1,577
1997 4,500 2,700 1,696
1998 4,500 3,000 1,876
1999 4,500 3,125 1,915
2000 4,800 3,300 2,040
2001 5,100 3,750 2,298
2002 5,400 4,000 2,436
2003 5,800 4,050 2,467
Sources: U.S. Department of Education, End of Year Report: 2004-2005 Title IV/Federal Pell Grant
Program; U.S. Department of Education, Fiscal Year 2008 Justifications of Appropriation Estimates
to the Congress, vol. II, p. O-26. This report was released prior to P.L. 110-5 being enacted, and thus
the FY2007 estimates do not take into account the increased appropriated maximum award.
The appropriated maximum award is often used as a gauge of the program’s
support for low-income college students because this is the amount that the neediest
students (those with an EFC of $0) are likely to receive. During the annual
appropriations process, there is frequently a debate about setting the maximum
award. The figure below depicts the change over time in the size of the authorized
maximum grant (none specified for FY2007), appropriated maximum grant, and the
average award. During the mid to late 1990s, the gap between the authorized and
appropriated maximums was largest. Not unexpectedly, the average annual award
generally tracks changes in the appropriated maximum.
Surpluses and Shortfalls
As mentioned, the annual appropriations legislation for ED provides funding for
the Pell Grant program and sets the maximum Pell Grant to be awarded (the
appropriated maximum grant). These appropriated funds are available for two fiscal
years. In general that means that an annual appropriation is typically available for
obligation on October 1 of the fiscal year in which the appropriation is made and
remains available for obligation through September 30 of the following fiscal year.
For example, the FY2006 appropriation became available for obligation with the
enactment of the FY2006 appropriations legislation (December 30, 2005) and can be
obligated through September 30, 2007. The Pell Grant award year runs from July 1
of one year to June 30 of the following calendar year (e.g., 2006-2007 award year
begins July 1, 2006, and ends June 30, 2007). As a result, the period of availability
of the appropriated funds overlaps multiple award years.
Figure 1. Authorized Maximum Grants, Appropriated Maximum
Grants, and Average Awards, FY1973-FY2007
$7 , 00 0
$6 , 00 0
A uthorizedMaximu m
$5 , 00 0 Gr a n t
$4 , 00 0 A ppropriated
Maximu mGr a n t
$3 , 00 0
$1 , 00 0
1 97 3 1 97 6 1 97 9 1 98 2 1 98 5 1 98 8 1 99 1 1 99 4 1 99 7 2 00 0 2 00 3 2 00 6
Sources: U.S. Department of Education, End of Year Report: 2004-2005 Title IV/Federal Pell Grant
Program; U.S. Department of Education, Budget Service, budget tables for various years.
The annual appropriation level and maximum grant are determined well in
advance of the award year they are intended to support. The annual appropriation is
determined on the basis of estimates of the program costs that are likely to be
incurred at the chosen maximum grant. To the extent those estimates of future
program costs are inaccurate, the annual appropriation may be too much or too little.
In the event of a surplus, the authorizing statute provides ED with limited carryover
What has been of most concern to federal policymakers recently are the
measures that can be taken to address a funding shortfall. The HEA requires the
Secretary of Education, when he or she has determined that the appropriated funds
are insufficient to satisfy all Pell entitlements,16 to notify each House of Congress of
the shortfall, identifying how much more is needed to meet those entitlements.
Prior to the Higher Education Amendments of 1992 (P.L. 102-325), the
Secretary of Education had statutory authority under the HEA to reduce awards to
respond to a shortfall in appropriated funds.17 Reductions were made in awards in
eight years using this authority (the last in 1990-1991). After this HEA authority was
repealed, appropriations legislation for FY1994-FY2001 continued to provide the
Secretary with reduction authority, but that authority was not used.18 The FY2002
and subsequent appropriations legislation have not included such language.
The Secretary can respond to a shortfall in Pell Grant funding by “borrowing”
from the next year’s appropriation. As noted earlier, the Pell Grant appropriation is
available for obligation for two fiscal years. This permits ED to use funds from two
fiscal years’ appropriations to meet one award year’s costs.
FY2001-FY2005: The Growth of the Shortfall. The experience to date of
the Pell Grant program with the FY2001-FY2006 appropriations offers the most
recent examples of responses to a Pell Grant shortfall (Table 3). The most recent ED
estimate is that the FY2005 shortfall for the program was approximately $4.3 billion.
How that program shortfall was reached is delineated in the table and text below.
16 The authorizing statute speaks of entitlements when it describes the award determined for
a student based on the published award schedule.
17 Some form of authority to reduce awards was provided to the Secretary between the
inception of the program in 1972 and the 1992 amendments. Immediately prior to its repeal
in 1992, this provision permitted reduction in awards only within certain limits. No award
could be reduced for students whose EFC was $200 or less (i.e., the awards for the neediest
students would be protected). A schedule of reductions for other awards had to use a “single
linear reduction formula” that applied uniformly increasing percentage reductions as initial
entitlements decreased. No award could be made to a student whose initial award was
reduced to less than $100 under the reduction formula.
18 The appropriations legislation required the Secretary to reduce awards using fixed or
variable percentages, or using a fixed dollar reduction, if, prior to issuing the payment
schedules, he or she determined that appropriated funds could not fully fund the
appropriated maximum grant. A schedule of reduced grants would then be published.
Appropriations law for FY2001 set the maximum Pell Grant at $3,750 and
appropriated $8.756 billion. In January 2001, ED estimated that FY2001 program
costs at that maximum grant level would be $9.115 billion, and that the difference
between the appropriation and program costs would be made up by $359 million in
surplus funds from the prior year.19 As Table 3 shows, as of January 2005 the
FY2001 program costs were $9.996 billion. In addition, only an estimated $328
million was available in surplus funds. This left an estimated $912 million shortfall
for FY2001 in the Pell Grant program; ED covered that shortfall by borrowing from
the FY2002 appropriation which became available for obligation during the 2001-
The initial FY2002 appropriation for the program was $10.314 billion, intended
to fund a $4,000 maximum grant. In its FY2003 budget request, ED estimated that
FY2002 program costs would be $10.730 billion,20 well in excess of the appropriated
level and more than ED had estimated during the FY2002 appropriations process.
Given that ED was using FY2002 appropriated funds to cover the FY2001 shortfall,
the Department requested an FY2002 supplemental appropriation of $1.276 billion.
The Congress responded by increasing the available FY2002 appropriation by $1
billion. The more recent estimates for FY2002 from ED shown in Table 3
demonstrate how volatile program cost estimates have been during this period.
Currently, ED estimates that FY2002 program costs were $11.664 billion. Coupled
with a $1 billion supplemental appropriation enacted into law, the total FY2002
appropriated funds were $11.314 billion. Of this amount, an estimated $912 million
was used to cover the FY2001 shortfall, leaving the available funding $1.262 billion
below what was needed to cover the FY2002 program costs.
In March 2003, the department estimated program costs for FY2003 (maximum
Pell Grant of $4,000) at $11.67 billion. This estimate assumed $292 million in
savings from anticipated enactment of legislation authorizing the Internal Revenue
Service (IRS) to match aid applicant data with federal income tax returns — in the
absence of this legislation (which, to date, has not been enacted), total estimated
program costs were pegged at $11.962 billion. The more recent ED estimates show
FY2003 program costs of $12.730 billion. As the FY2002 and FY2003 cost
estimates rose, the FY2003 year shortfall rose (in part, because the shortfall from
FY2002 grew). In March 2003, the FY2003 shortfall was estimated to be $1.538
billion (or $1.83 billion with the addition of the $292 million assumed to be saved
by the IRS match). As illustrated in Table 3, the estimated current year shortfall for
FY2003 is now $2.627 billion.
For FY2004, ED initially estimated that program costs would be $11.410 billion
(assuming, among other things, a $4,000 maximum grant and implementation of the
IRS match), and that the shortfall would be $549 million. This estimate was prepared
prior to enactment of the FY2003 appropriations legislation, which raised the
19 U.S. Department of Education, Budget table identified as Department of Education Fiscal
Year 2001 Congressional Action, dated January 23, 2001. This table states that this program
cost estimate was prepared December 2000.
20 U.S. Department of Education, FY2003 Education Budget Summary, Appendix 2, detailed
budget table, dated February 4, 2002.
maximum Pell Grant to $4,050. As a result, the data shown for FY2004 in Table 3
differ significantly from these early estimates.
ED attributes the current shortfalls to significant growth in the maximum
appropriated Pell Grant in recent years and “unexpected growth” in the number of
Pell applicants and recipients. According to ED, between the 1995-1996 and 2000-
2001 award years, the number of valid applicants grew by no more than 2.6% from
one year to the next. The increase from 2000-2001 to 2001-2002 was an estimated
8.6% and from 2001-2002 to 2002-2003, an estimated 8.9%. Much of this increase
is attributed to growth in the number of independent students applying for and
receiving Pell Grants. ED estimated that these high rates of annual increase would
subside, beginning in 2003-2004, but still remain above historical levels.21
Table 3. FY2001-FY2005 Pell Grant Shortfalls
(in millions of dollars, except for appropriated maximum grant)
Estima ted Estima ted
From Est i ma t e d Current Annua l Appropriated
20018,756328 — -9129,9963,750a
200211,314 — -912-1,26211,6644,000
200311,365 — -1,262-2,62712,7304,050
200412,007 — -2,627-3,73713,1174,050
200512,365 — -3,737-4,30012,9284,050
Source: U.S. Department of Education, unpublished data.
a. Includes $1 billion in FY2002 supplemental funding.
FY2006: Eliminating the Funding Shortfall. Pursuant to the terms of the
FY2006 Budget Resolution (H.Con.Res. 95), $4.3 billion was appropriated to
eliminate the Pell Grant program’s cumulative funding shortfall. Specifically, budget
authority up to $4.3 billion was granted to eliminate the shortfall for all awards made
through award year 2005-2006. The funds were appropriated in the FY2006
appropriations legislation for Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education
(P.L. 109-149). In addition, to limit the possibility of future funding shortfalls,
H.Con.Res. 95 provides that if the appropriations of discretionary new budget
authority enacted for the program are insufficient to cover the full costs in the
upcoming year, including any funding surplus or shortfall from prior years, the
budget authority counted against the bill for the program shall be equal to the
adjusted full cost. It further states that the budget authority for the program shall be
based on the maximum appropriated award amount and any changes to the eligibility
21 U.S. Department of Education, Fiscal Year 2005 Justifications of Appropriation Estimates
to the Congress, vol. 2, pp. N-24, N-25.
Characteristics of Recipients
The Pell Grant program reaches a sizeable portion of undergraduates each year.
In FY2003 (award year 2003-2004), 26.8% of all undergraduates were estimated to
have received Pell Grants.22 According to ED estimates, the annual number of Pell
Grant recipients rose markedly from the program’s inception with FY1973 funding.
As shown in Table 4 and Figure 2, the number of recipients grew steadily until
1992. There was a drop in recipients over the following three-year period, followed
by fluctuation in the number of recipients until growth resumed in FY2000. Given
the substantial growth in recipients since FY1999, the percentage of all
undergraduates receiving Pell Grants today is probably higher than was reported for
22 Unless noted, the data in this section describing the characteristics of Pell Grant recipients
are CRS estimates from the 2003-2004 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS)
administered by the U.S. Department of Education. This is a survey of a statistically
representative sample of undergraduate, graduate, and first professional students. For this
analysis, just the undergraduate data were analyzed. Unless noted, any direct comparisons
in the text based on NPSAS data have been found to be statistically significant at the 95%
confidence level at least. That is, there is only a 5% or less probability that these differences
are due to chance.
Table 4. Estimated Annual Number of
Pell Grant Recipients, FY1973-FY2007
Fiscal YearEstimated Number of Pell Grant Recipients
Sources: U.S. Department of Education, End of Year Report: 2004-
2005 Title IV/Federal Pell Grant Program (for FY1973-FY2003); U.S.
Department of Education, Fiscal Year 2008 Justifications of
Appropriation Estimates to the Congress, vol. 2, p. O-33.
Figure 2. Estimated Number of Pell Grant Recipients, FY1973-FY2007
1 97 3 1 97 5 1 97 7 1 97 9 1 98 1 1 98 3 1 98 5 1 98 7 1 98 9 1 99 1 1 99 3 1 99 5 1 99 7 1 99 9 2 00 1 2 00 3 2 00 5 2 00 7
Sources: U.S. Department of Education, End of Year Report: 2004-2005 Title IV/Federal Pell Grant
Program (for FY1973-FY2004); U.S. Department of Education, Budget Service, budget table entitled
Department of Education Fiscal Year 2006 President’s Budget (for FY2005); U.S. Department of
Education Budget Service, budget table entitled Department of Education Fiscal Year 2008
Congressional Action, (for FY2006 and FY2007).
What are the characteristics of the students receiving Pell Grants? Three
characteristics are explored below — income, enrollment status, and type and control
of enrolling institution.
There is no absolute income threshold that determines who is eligible or who
is ineligible for Pell Grants.23 Nevertheless, Pell Grant recipients are primarily low-
income. In FY2003 (award year 2003-2004), an estimated 38% of dependent Pell
Grant recipients had total parental income below $20,000 and over 80% (84%) had
total income of less than $40,000.24 Independent Pell Grant recipients’ income is
generally lower than their dependent counterparts. Nearly 40% (39.6%) of
independent Pell Grant recipients had total income of less than $10,000; over slightly
more than 85% (85.7%) had total income below $30,000.
23 As has been described, eligibility for a Pell Grant depends to a great extent on the EFC
calculated for a student and his or her family. The EFC can be affected by a host of factors
other than a family’s income. This includes, among other factors, family size, number in
college, the student’s dependency status, and assets.
24 Total income for dependent students is the total income of their parents. This includes
most taxable and untaxed income. For independent students, total income is the taxable and
untaxed income for the students and their spouses, if any.
Given the focus of the program on needy students, it is not surprising that much
higher percentages of low income undergraduates receive Pell Grants. This might be
considered a Pell participation rate. Table 5 shows the percentage of dependent and
independent undergraduates from different income levels who were Pell recipients
in FY2003. Two participation rates are provided for each income level; one
measuring the percentage of all undergraduate students (of the relevant dependency
status) who were Pell recipients and the other providing the percentage of
undergraduate aid applicants (of the relevant dependency status) who received Pells.
Focusing on the lowest income categories,25 it is estimated that approximately
59.2% of all dependent undergraduates from families with total income of less than
$10,000 were Pell recipients, and 79.70% of the aid applicants from that income
category were Pell recipients. About 50% (49.6%) of all independent undergraduates
with total income of less than $5,000 were Pell recipients, and about 75% of the aid
applicants in that category received Pells. Table 5 shows that, in general, as income
rose, participation rates in the Pell program dropped for dependent and independent
25 In the rest of this analysis, references to individuals from the lowest income categories are
to dependent students with total income of less than $10,000 (about 5% of dependent
undergraduates) and independent students with total income of less than $5,000 (about 10%
of independent undergraduates).
Table 5. Estimated Pell Grant Participation by Income,
Estimated Percentage Receiving Pell Grants
Total IncomeAll StudentsFederal Aid Applicants
$10,000-$19,999 65.7 83.2
$20,000-$29,999 62.5 77.2
$30,000-$39,999 43.3 61.1
$40,000-$49,999 24.2 37.5
$50,000-$59,999 9.0 14.0
$60,000-$69,999 3.0 5.3
$70,000 or more 0.40.7
Less than $5,00049.675.0
$5,000-$9,999 63.2 82.0
$10,000-$19,999 48.2 67.2
$20,000-$29,999 26.7 55.3
$30,000-$49,999 22.3 45.2
$50,000 or more 1.3 5.0
Source: CRS estimates from 2000-2003 NPSAS.
Given the intended purpose of the Pell Grant program to provide low-income
students with the foundation of their aid, it is noteworthy that a substantial portion
of very low income undergraduates did not receive a Pell Grant. Apparently, a large
percentage of these very low income students did not apply for federal financial aid.26
The percentage of dependent undergraduates from the lowest income category who
received a Pell Grant increased markedly if aid application is taken into account,
rising from 59.2% to 79.7%. A similar increase in participation characterized the
lowest income independent undergraduates when aid application is considered —
from 49.6% to 75.0%. Nevertheless, even among aid application filers, a relatively
significant portion of the lowest income students did not receive Pell Grants.
It is possible that many of these lowest income students who did not apply for
aid may have believed they were not financially eligible for aid, or they may have had
sufficient resources to meet their costs.27 At least some of those who believed they
26 It should be noted that the ability to speak with confidence about the income levels of
students who did not file the FAFSA is adversely affected by certain data quality issues. For
non-aid filers, income information comes from surveys of students and from imputation.
According to the NPSAS code book in the Data Analysis System, these income data are
“much less reliable” than those from aid filers.
27 An analysis of 1995-1996 NPSAS data found these to be the two primary reasons offered
were ineligible for aid may have actually been eligible.28 Among other possible
explanations is that very low-income students in particular find the federal financial
aid application process too complex to pursue or that such students are more likely
not to know that aid is available.
Pell recipients, regardless of dependency status, are more likely to be
exclusively full-time students than are undergraduates as a whole and far less likely
to be enrolled exclusively half-time. Table 6 shows the distribution of dependent
and independent undergraduates in general and Pell recipients in particular by
Table 6. Estimated Distribution of Undergraduates and
Pell Grant Recipients by Enrollment Status, 2000-2003
Enrollment StatusAll StudentsPell Recipients
Exclusively part-time 17.1% 12.2%
Mixed (status changed 18.6% 21.0%
during enrollment period)
Total 100.0% 100.0%
Exclusively full-time 33.8% 49.7%
Exclusively half-time 52.1% 29.5%
Mixed (status changed 14.1% 20.8%
during enrollment period)
Total 100.0% 100.0%
Source: CRS estimates from 2000-2003 NPSAS. Due to rounding, sum of column entries may not
equal column totals.
Type and Control
Compared to all undergraduates, Pell Grant recipients are less likely to be
enrolled in public two-year institutions and more likely to be enrolled in proprietary
institutions. Table 7 shows the distribution of dependent and independent
undergraduates and Pell Grant recipients by the type and control of the institutions
by low-income students who did not file for federal financial aid. (U.S. Department of
Education, Low-Income Students: Who They Are and How They Pay for Their Education,
NCES 2000-169, March 2000.)
28 Ibid., p. 22. It is stated, “In some cases, the belief that their family income was too high
for them to qualify for aid may simply have been erroneous.”
Table 7. Estimated Distribution of Undergraduates and
Pell Grant Recipients by Type and Control
of Enrolling Institution, 2000-2003
Type and% Dependent% Independent% Dependent% Independent
ControlUndergraduatesUndergraduatesPell RecipientsPell Recipients
Public 4-year 39.6 20.5 37.822.6
Private 4-year 16.910.1 18.010.6
Public 2-year 31.449.1 27.438.5
Proprietary 3.711.7 7.919.4
More than one
institution during 8.48.6 8.88.9
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Source: CRS estimates from 2003-2004 NPSAS. Due to rounding, sum of column entries may not equal
Role of the Pell Grant
The Pell Grant is intended to function as the foundation aid for needy
undergraduates; all other federal need-based aid is to build on the Pell Grant. As
described earlier, other financial aid received by a student is not taken into account
in determining a student’s Pell Grant. How well does the Pell Grant currently
function as the foundation aid? This section explores this question by analyzing the
purchasing power of the Pell Grant and the distribution of other federal aid to Pell
The appropriated maximum Pell Grant, available to students with zero EFCs,
is often used as a gauge of the Pell Grant program’s level of support in each year. In
FY2001, the appropriated maximum grant ($3,750) covered 73% of the average
tuition, fees, room, and board at public two-year institutions, 41% at public four-year
institutions, and 16% at private four-year institutions. Figure 3 below compares the
appropriated maximum grant to average undergraduate tuition, fees, room, and board
charges at public two-year, public four-year, and private four-year institutions
between FY1973 and FY2006.29 It is evident that the maximum was at its peak
relative to these average charges during the 1970s.
Figure 3. Percentage of Tuition, Fees, Room and Board Covered by
the Appropriated Maximum Pell Grant, FY1973-FY2006
60 . 0 %
40 . 0 %
20 . 0 % AttendanceCa p %
1 97 3 1 97 6 1 97 9 1 98 2 1 98 5 1 98 8 1 99 1 1 99 4 1 99 7 2 00 0 2 00 3 2 00 6
Source: U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics 2005, Table 312; The College
Board, Trends in College Pricing 2006, Table 1.
Importantly, the purchasing power of the Pell Grant through FY1992 (1992-
1993 award year) was constrained by a statutory cap on the percentage of COA that
a Pell Grant could cover, depicted as black dots in Figure 3. From FY1973 to
FY1984, the cap was 50%; from FY1985 to FY1992, the cap was 60%. After that
time there has been no absolute limit on the percentage of COA that can be covered.30
29 The data used for Figure 3 are average undergraduate tuition and fees paid by full-time
equivalent students. The room and board amounts are full-time charges. The average full
cost of attendance for federal need analysis purposes would be higher than these so-called
fixed charges, including additional expenses for such things as books and transportation.
The inclusion of full-time room and board in Figure 3 may be somewhat problematic
particularly at the community-college level because these charges are not adjusted for part-
time enrollment and may not reflect the actual costs faced by students living off campus.
But, as noted later in this section, the overall conclusions regarding Pell Grant purchasing
power apply regardless of the charges used. The source of these data is the U.S. Department
of Education’s Digest of Education Statistics 2005, Table 312. Prices for public and private
four-year institutions for academic years 1973-1974, 1974-1975, and 1975-1976 are not
available from ED. For this figure, they were estimated based on the annual rates of change
in prices for “other” public or private four-year institutions (these institutions do not include
public or private universities) for which ED did have data. Private two-year institutions are
not considered because they account for very few students.
30 In place of the absolute cap on the percentage of COA that the Pell Grant could cover, the
Still, it must be stressed that it is not clear what impact the COA cap would have had
on the coverage data presented in this figure. First, the expenses covered in the
figure are averages, meaning that students actually faced charges that ranged above
and below the levels shown. Second, charges for tuition, fees, room, and board do
not constitute the full costs that make up COA. As a result, annual percentages of
average COA covered by the appropriated maximum Pell Grant would have been
lower than the percentages delineated in this figure.31
Nevertheless, even if one assumes that the percentage of coverage by the
maximum Pell Grant of tuition, fees, room, and board would have been limited to the
50% or 60% caps, these caps would have had no impact on the coverage of average
public and private four-year expenses shown here from FY1985 onward. As a result,
it is evident that from the mid 1980s through the early 1990s, the appropriated
maximum Pell Grant lost ground relative to average tuition, fees, room, and board
at public and private four-year institutions. Despite recent increases in coverage, the
FY2006 percentages remain below the FY1985 percentages (54% for public four-
year colleges and 23% for private four-year colleges). Indeed, for private four-year
institutions, the peak purchasing power which occurred in the mid to late 1970s
(when the percentage of these average costs covered at those institutions was well in
excess of 30%) would not have been affected by the COA caps since average charges
in that sector were always below the caps.
The erosion depicted in Figure 3 is found when other comparisons are made.
For example, the trend lines are very similar if the annual average Pell Grant is
compared to average tuition, fees, room, and board, or if either the appropriated
maximum or average grant is compared to just tuition and fees.32
Pell Grant Recipients and Other Federal Aid
One measure of the role that the Pell Grant plays as the foundation award is the
extent to which undergraduates who received federal need-based student aid from the33
HEA were Pell recipients. Data from FY2003 suggest that Pell Grants alone may
not have constituted the primary foundation for these students. In FY2003, although
nearly two-thirds of federal need-based aid recipients received Pell Grants, a
comparable portion of need-based aid recipients borrowed Stafford Subsidized34
HEA now provides the tuition sensitivity amount. This was described earlier and is
considered in greater detail in the concluding section of reauthorization issues.
31 Data for the average COA from a consistent source over this time period are not available.
32 The percentage of costs covered varies significantly depending upon which Pell measure
is used (the appropriated maximum or average) or which set of prices is used (tuition, fees,
room, and board, or just tuition and fees).
33 Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Federal Perkins
Loans, Federal Work-Study earnings, and Stafford Subsidized Loans.
34 Further, one-third of federal need-based aid recipients secured Stafford Unsubsidized
These data certainly raise questions about the foundation role intended for the
Pell Grant program. The extent to which need-based aid recipients borrowed
Stafford Loans, whether subsidized or unsubsidized, is troubling to policymakers and
analysts who believe that borrowing imposes a burden on low-income families that
may adversely affect students’ enrollment patterns.35
Another approach to delineating the role of Pell Grants is to explore the extent
to which Pell recipients, as a group, relied solely in FY2003 on the grant to meet
college charges without having to secure other federal aid, particularly loans with
their repayment obligation. In FY2003, for just 15.8% of Pell recipients was that
grant their only source of aid. As shown in Table 8, Pell Grant recipients
participated in other federal student aid programs, sometimes at a high rate. Among
the federal need-based student aid, Pell recipients were most likely to also be
borrowing Stafford Subsidized Loans (over 56% of Pell recipients received these
loans — average amount of $3,219).
Table 8. Pell Grant Recipients’ Participation Rates and
Average Awards in Other Aid Programs, FY2003
% of Pell RecipientsAverage Amount of AidAwarded Under This
ProgramWho Also Received AidProgram to Participating
Under This ProgramPell Recipient ($)
Federal Supplemental22.3 697
Educational Opportunity Grants
Stafford Subsidized Loans56.53,219
Stafford Unsubsidized Loans31.63,234
Federal Perkins Loans 8.11,965
All Non-Federal Grants49.33,310
All Non-Federal Loans 6.94,608
Source: CRS estimates from 2003-2004 NPSAS.
The overall price of education has an impact on the extent to which Pell
recipients secure Stafford Loans. For Pell recipients attending public two-year
institutions, where the average cost of attendance is lower than at public four-year
institutions and, particularly, at private four-year institutions, the propensity for
borrowing was much less than for Pell recipients as a whole. For FY2003, 25.8% of
Pell recipients at public two-year institutions borrowed Stafford Subsidized Loans,
and 11.1% borrowed Stafford Unsubsidized Loans.
35 See, for example, Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, Empty Promises:
The Myth of College Access in America, June 2002, pp. 11-13.
Possible Reauthorization Issues
This section provides brief overviews of several issues that may be considered
by the Congress as it deliberates on the Pell Grant program. There is an overarching
question which, to some extent, links the first three specific issues described below.
As was delineated earlier, there may be some question about whether the Pell Grant
is playing the foundation role intended for it, particularly for the neediest students.
Steps to increase the targeting of Pell Grant assistance to such students may be
debated by the Congress during this reauthorization process and are part of the initial
issues discussed below.
At various points in the analysis below, FY2007 cost estimates of changes to the
program are presented and compared to an estimate of the FY2007 cost under current
law at a $4,310 maximum appropriated grant. These estimates were made using the
Pell Grant estimation model of the U.S. Department of Education’s Budget Service.36
The Pell Grant program is subject to annual appropriations. As delineated
earlier, the authorized maximum award has usually been higher than the maximum
set in the appropriations process; the last time they both were the same was for
FY1979. Further, given the difficulty in estimating program costs, the annual
appropriation has in several years been significantly less than what was needed to
meet those costs, causing shortfalls and leading to reductions in grants, borrowing
from subsequent years’ appropriations, or supplemental appropriations. As a result,
in many years, there may be uncertainty among students, their families, and higher
education institutions about the level of support the program will provide. One
response to these circumstances has been the proposal that the Pell Grant program
be made into an entitlement. As a consequence, its funding would be mandatory.
This would preclude shortfalls, support a maximum Pell Grant at the level set in the
authorizing legislation, and reduce annual uncertainty about the program. Advocates
of this step may also stress that funding higher maximum Pell Grants would direct
greater funding to the neediest students.
Congress has wrestled with this issue in the past. Indeed, during legislative
action on the Higher Education Amendments of 1992, the House and Senate
education committees approved versions of a reauthorized HEA that would have
made the program an entitlement. These provisions were not enacted.
Concerns about the consequences of making the Pell Grant an entitlement have
centered on several issues. Questions are raised about the cost of doing so. For
example, if the authorized maximum Pell Grant for FY2005 (award year 2005-2006)
36 The ED Budget Service model’s version U2008 was utilized for the present analysis
(2007). CRS does not make official congressional cost estimates of federal programs or
legislative proposals; that is the responsibility of the Congressional Budget Office.
Estimates of costs and the number and characteristics of recipients included in this report
are intended to suggest the relative magnitude and nature of the impact of changes in the
Pell Grant program.
of $5,800 were to be funded, total program costs are likely to be about $19.8 billion,
a more than 41.4% increase in the estimated cost of the program.
There has been long-standing interest in ensuring that the Pell Grant program
serves needy students and in maximizing the grant that can be awarded to those
students. This interest is often heightened by efforts to expand eligibility for the
program because as additional, presumably higher income, students are drawn into
the program, raising the appropriated maximum grant (which would focus greater
amounts of funding on the neediest students) becomes more costly (a higher
maximum generally means somewhat more aid for all students eligible for
assistance). Further, with the recent growth in federal support for middle-income
students through the federal income tax system,37 concern has been raised about the
continued federal commitment to aid for low-income students.38
Among the changes to the Pell Grant program that might be considered in any
effort to target the grants more fully on low-income students and, if possible, increase
the size of their grants,39 is raising the minimum grant.
As has been described, under current law, the minimum Pell Grant annual award
for any recipient is $400. Any applicant eligible for a Pell Grant of at least $200 but
less than $400 is awarded the $400 minimum (this retention of grantees eligible for
between $200 and $399 and the boost in their grants to $400 is identified in this
discussion as the minimum grant “bump”).
Overall, any increase in the minimum Pell Grant will reduce the number of
recipients and program costs. The impact may actually be more significant with
regard to recipients than to program costs. Based on the estimated consequences for
program costs and recipients shown in Table 9, it appears that, without a very large
increase in the minimum Pell Grant, what is gained financially by a greater targeting
on low-income Pell recipients may not be enough to support a substantial increase
in the appropriated maximum Pell Grant for remaining eligible students.
Table 9 shows estimates for the impact of three different increases in the
minimum Pell Grant for award year 2007-2008: $400 (a “true” $400 minimum
without the $200 bump), $600, and $800. For all of these estimates, the maximum
37 CRS Report RL31484, Higher Education Tax Credits: Targeting, Value, and Interaction
with Other Federal Student Aid, by Adam Stoll and James B. Stedman; and CRS Report
RL31129, Higher Education Tax Credits and Deduction: An Overview of the Benefits and
Their Relationship to Traditional Student Aid, by Adam Stoll and Linda Levine.
38 See, for example, Thomas R. Wolanin, Rhetoric and Reality: Effects and Consequences
of the HOPE Scholarship, The Institute for Higher Education Policy, April 2001.
39 Various options for achieving such changes were proposed prior to the last reauthorization
of the HEA. See, for example “Rethinking the Allocation of Pell Grants,” by David W.
Breneman and Fred J. Galloway, in Financing Postsecondary Education: The Federal Role,
October 1995. See [http://www.ed.gov/offices/OPE/PPI/FinPostSecEd/breneman.html].
appropriated Pell Grant was fixed at $4,310, the level that applies to award year
Table 9. Estimated Impact of Increasing the
Minimum Pell Grant for Award Year 2007-2008
MinimumEstimated Decrease inRecipients from Current LawEstimated Decrease in ProgramCosts from Current Law ($)
$400 (no bump)56,000 (1.0% decrease)18.4 million (0.1% decrease)
$600135,000 (2.5% decrease)51.3 million (0.4% decrease)
$800228,000 (4.3% decrease)105.5 million (0.8% decrease)
Source: Cost estimates based on ED’s Budget Service Pell Grant model.
These selected increases in the minimum annual Pell Grant have a greater
impact in percentage terms on the number of recipients than on the total costs of the
program. This general pattern is not surprising. An increase in the Pell Grant
minimum affects those recipients with the smallest grants — only those recipients
whose current Pell Grant falls below the new minimum lose eligibility, while those
with larger grants are unaffected. Thus, for example, establishing a true $400
minimum (no bump) decreases program costs by at most $400 per recipient losing
eligibility.40 Raising the minimum grant by more substantial amounts will lead to
proportionately greater reductions in program costs, although more recipients will be
affected and will lose larger grants.
The Pell Grant program does not currently have any eligibility requirement
based on academic merit. In a period of increasing federal interest in improving
student outcomes at all levels of education and holding recipients of federal funds
accountable for academic improvement, the Congress may consider merit-based
proposals for the Pell Grant program during the HEA reauthorization.
At present, students have to maintain satisfactory progress in order to continue
to receive a Pell Grant. Satisfactory progress is defined by participating institutions
and is often viewed as a minimal academic standard. Proposals to strengthen the
academic standards supported by the program or introduce academic merit to the
program may take the form of raising the academic performance requirements that
students must meet in order to receive a Pell Grant after the initial year of eligibility;
providing additional Pell Grant assistance to students who demonstrate high levels
of academic performance; precluding the use of Pell Grant funding to support any
40 Under a no-bump $400 minimum, the actual decrease from current law may be less than
$400 for some current recipients losing eligibility. This may arise, in part, because Pell
Grants must be paid out to recipients in installments over the academic year. As a
consequence, a change in enrollment status may lead to receipt of total Pell Grant funding
of less than $400. For example, a student enrolled full-time for the fall semester and eligible
for the minimum award of $400, could receive an initial payment of $200 for the first
semester. If he or she did not enroll for the second semester, the second payment is not
made and the total Pell aid received would be $200.
form of remedial education;41 or limiting the number of years in which Pell Grant
assistance can be received to accelerate program completion.
Issues raised by such proposals include concern about their disproportionate
impact on needy students who must rely on the Pell Grant to meet college costs. As
a consequence, attention may be directed to the relationship between Pell-linked
academic accountability, if any, and other accountability provisions that the Congress
might consider for the HEA and the higher education community in general. Further,
if the current program is retained but new funding is directed to needy students
meeting academic merit requirements, concerns may be raised about the impact on
funding for the basic Pell Grant.42
41 Currently, a student may receive federal financial assistance for up to a year’s worth of
remedial education. A student cannot receive aid if he or she is enrolled in a program
composed solely of remedial work, or if the remedial course work is required for admission
to an eligible program.
42 Congress has chosen not to fund the Academic Achievement Incentive Scholarships,
authorized by the Higher Education Amendments of 1998, which would have doubled the
amount of Pell assistance provided to eligible incoming higher education students who
graduated in the top 10% of their high school class.