How Expansion of the Pell Grant Can Also Fight Racial Inequity
Dr. Michael Mittelman, President, Salus University (Rear Admiral, MSC, U.S. Navy, retired)
Although we are finally having genuine discussions on a national scale about diversity, equity and inclusion and how to reverse the effects of systemic racism toward Black and brown Americans, we must explore how access to federal financial aid for students pursuing advanced degrees can greatly impact our country’s fight against racial inequity.
Federal financial aid, specifically the Pell Grant program, plays a crucial role in making it possible for many undergraduates from low- and middle-income families to earn a college degree. In 2016, research from the U.S. Department of Education revealed that 46 percent of first-year graduate and professional students were undergraduate Pell recipients, but a staggering one-third did not use the full Pell allotment upon completing an undergraduate program. Since Pell cannot currently be applied to graduate school, almost 70 percent of these students had to take out additional loans during their first year of graduate school. So why limit Pell access to undergraduates when the students who rack up the most debt are enrolled in much needed graduate or professional degree programs? At the very least, undergraduate Pell recipients should be able to fully exhaust their Pell allotments during the first semester of graduate school, which could significantly impact their future debt loads.
Additionally, allowing undergraduate Pell recipients to apply their federal aid to graduate school would help increase opportunities among low- and middle-income students, who are more likely to be from disadvantaged Black and brown communities, and directly influence the level of diversity much needed in fields, including health care, law and other graduate-level professional programs such as finance, higher education and business. While graduate programs have increased their diversity over the last ten years, programs such as law and medicine are two examples that desperately need more Black and brown student representation to meet the needs of our increasingly diverse society. The enrollment numbers simply do not reflect the same level of diversity found at undergraduate institutions or in other graduate programs.
According to a 2019 report by the American Council on Education (ACE) based on 2015–2016 data from the Department of Education, the country’s graduate school enrollment numbers reflected that 13.5 percent, 9 percent and 6 percent of the student population identified as Black, Hispanic and Asian, respectively. Compare these statistics to the 2018–2019 data reported by ACE on U.S. medical school graduates who identified as 6 percent Black, 5 percent Hispanic and 22 percent Asian or 2019 data from the American Bar Association reporting that law students identified as 8 percent Black, 12 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian, and the numbers prove the disproportion when all three reports also reflected an enrollment of at least 55 percent identifying as white.
Perhaps our nation’s student loan debt figures also help indicate why graduate level students need access to the Pell Grant program, which has been called the cornerstone of federal financial aid as well as African American higher education. According to the Washington Post, 40 percent of today’s federal student loans are given to graduate-level students with their borrowing increasing by $2.3 billion over the course of six academic years. Comparatively, undergraduate borrowing decreased by $15 billion during the same time period. This also reflects an increase in graduate enrollment during that same time period. Compounding this, student loans for graduate students are not federally subsidized and thus have higher interest rates than their undergraduate counterparts. Many professions in the health sciences, education or social justice sectors may have student debt between $100,000 — $200,000, a substantial amount of debt to take on especially when starting as a low-income student.
As the Biden administration considers doubling the number of Pell Grants, college and university officials must call on federal lawmakers to extend the availability of federal financial aid to graduate students to assist low- and middle-income students with connecting to healthcare, law and other graduate-level professions. Now is the time for our representatives in Congress to expeditiously pass a bill that is inclusive and responsive to the needs of all Americans. Access to higher education through federal financial aid is a crucial vessel that cannot be overlooked in our country’s fight against racial inequity.
Dr. Michael H. Mittelman is the president of Salus University in Elkins Park. Dr. Mittelman served with distinction for more than three decades in the U.S. Navy.