+ The Legacy of Senator Pell

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In an editorial in the NY Times, we are reminded of Senator Claiborne Pell’s vision.  Pell died last week at the age of 90.

He was best known as the father of Pell Grants, a program established in 1975, which gives aid to low-income college students. 

Called the “Basic Educational Opportunity Grants” until 1980, the  Pell Grants were once deemed revolutionary and strongly opposed.

Maura J Casey, who wrote the editorial, was a freshman in 1975, the first year needy undergraduates were eligible to receive the assistance. 

Coming from a family which was severely strapped for money (a mother with heart problems who was living on alimony and a tiny veteran’s pension) she qualified for close to the maximum annual grant of $1400.  It seemed miraculous. 

But for Senator Pell’s stubbornness, passage of the bill would have required a miracle.

These days, colleges and universities are strong supporters of Pell Grants.  But in the early 1970’s they resisted the notion that money should go directly to students, as Mr Pell insisted.  They wanted the money to be a form of institutional aid, which they would disburse to students as they saw fit.

While the Senate passed Mr Pell’s bill, the House backed the colleges’ preferred version, and for two months in the summer of 1972, the conference committee haggled.

Although Pell was a wealthy New England aristocrat, he never wavered in his belief that the program should help poor students directly, as the postwar GI Bill did.  And finally, the committee came around, and Congress passed the bill.

A friend remembers that Pell was so modest that for years after the program was named for him, he refused to call them “Pell Grants.”  He just believed that poor students — if they had the will to attend college —  deserved the backup.

Writes Casey, the program is far from perfect; the aid hasn’t kept up with the cost of a college education.  So it doesn’t help as much now as it did back then.

But in more than three decades, the federal government has sent more than 108 million grants, about $250 billion, to needy students, according to the American Council on Education.

They have helped many, many students begin a journey toward the fulfillment of their dreams. 

sole source: Maura J Casey’s editorial piece in the NY Times on 1/6/09.   www.nytimes.com

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