Providence Journal
“This New England Blog” – Opinion Piece

By Clay Pell

July 3, 2012

When I was a boy, my grandfather would take me on runs. “Shuffles,” he called them – 1.1 miles from the house and back. People would often stop us to thank him for helping them go to college.  By the time that I headed to college, Parkinson’s disease had long since slowed Grandpa’s gait. But he lovingly invested in my education – both financially and emotionally – every step of the way. My grandfather was Sen. Claiborne Pell, who 40 years ago overcame opposition in Congress to establish a grant enabling every American “with the moxie and the drive” to get access to a college education.

Since 1972, Pell Grants have let 60 million students pursue higher education, including much of America’s current college-educated workforce and 9.8 million current students.All my life, people have approached me to say how much their Pell Grants meant to them. It’s not just that the money made  their educations possible, they say, but that they feel proud of, and grateful to, a country that invested in them.

When the U.S. Coast Guard assigned me to Washington in 2009, I was naturally drawn to the debate over the Pell Grants. While here, it’s been interesting – and somewhat sad – to hear people say that we can no longer afford this program. Some think that higher education does not need to be accessible to all. Others suggest that the Pell Grants should be less ambitious, focusing not on those with the greatest need but rather those who fit a preconceived view of “the best investment.”

When I hear those arguments, I remember the people who have shared their stories with me. Single mothers who went back to school and eventually earned Ph.D.s. Fellow officers in the U.S. Coast Guard who came out of poverty to attend college and now serve in the finest military in the world.

Collectively, these students are our future, and they represent our changing face as a nation. More than 50 percent of African-American and 40 percent of Latino college students count on Pell Grants. For African-Americans, a bachelor’s degree erases any difference in economic mobility compared with their white peers. For the average American, a bachelor’s degree will add about $1 million to her or his lifetime earnings.

Now is not the time to reduce their access to that opportunity. Even as more Americans go to college than ever before, the U.S. has slipped to 14th in the world in the proportion of young adults with a post-secondary credential. I am grateful that President Obama has called for full funding of the Pell Grants this and next year. I am grateful that Pell Grants has remained true to Grandpa’s original vision – grants, not debt – and awarded to students – not institutions – so that they can study wherever their drive leads them.
But we have more to do.

We must guarantee access to higher education, both as the primary means of upward social mobility for individuals and for our collective competitiveness around the globe. We must combat rising tuitions and student debt, continue to invest in higher education at the federal, state and local levels, and ensure that institutions themselves focus their own aid on the students with the greatest need.

And we must demand that institutions provide the instruction and the support that students need for success. As we reached the midpoint on our shuffles, both of us probably ready to take a breather, Grandpa would remind me to keep up the pace, that we were not yet there. As we celebrate 40 years of the Pell Grants, Grandpa might remind us that we as a country are not yet there. We hold the responsibility for protecting Pell Grants and extending the dream of college to the next generation. Let’s keep the trust and make sure our generation keeps up the pace.

Clay Pell is a U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant now serving as a White House Fellow and director for strategic planning on the National Security Staff. The views here are his own. Click here to visit The Providence Journal.

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