College Board Challenges the Pell Grant

The College Board has a novel idea: Among other proposals, they want the government to establish college savings accounts for low-income students starting at the age of 11. The money for the new plan would come from the Pell Grant.

The idea came from College Board’s Rethinking Pell Grants Study Group, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The group proposes that the Pell Grant program should be replaced with separate paths for younger college undergraduates and older adults in order to meet he needs of today’s diverse student body. Under the new plan, college grants wouldn’t be just handouts, but rather handouts that grew exponentially over time.

The Study Group proposes strengthening the information and guidance available to all students and specially providing strong counseling to older adults before they commit to specific institutions. The new policy also urges the government to simplify the application process, support award levels that fund students based on the number of credits they receive, redirecting funds and, most of all, create education accounts for low-income children.

It’s well-proven that when a family focuses on college in advance, their student has a significantly greater chance of attending college. Many low-income families have the resources to save for college, but not the push to do it. That’s where the new policy comes in.

Unfortunately, College Board might not go far enough with its plan. The policy leaves control of the Pell Grant with the federal government. Families themselves can neither add nor withdraw from the account. They have to initiate savings separately, and that presupposes that low-income families will find account opening easy. And if they do succeed, they may prefer the personal accounts that they can control rather than the government-run accounts they can’t.

Though the challenge is brave and would be beneficial, it’s possible that College Board needs to take it further. In order for it to succeed, the plan needs to promote a strong notion that families should save, learn and take control of their own college process – preferably in advance.