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The Future of Pell

Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education offered up a forum on what the future holds for Pell Grants. CHE explained, "When Congress proposed last month to cut spending for the Pell Grant program, which was created more than 30 years ago and remains the foundation of federal higher-education support for needy students, the move intensified a national debate over what role, if any, the grants should continue to play in helping low-income students attend college during these tough economic times." It will come as no surprise to RHSU readers that this invitation to rethinking is my favorite way to approach higher ed reform. Consequently, I was happy to participate when The Chronicle asked me, along with several other sharp thinkers, to offer up a couple thoughts.

My bottom line: The Pell is swell. Americans are justifiably fond of programs that help make college affordable today while sticking future taxpayers with the bill. That said, at least four major changes have unfolded since the Pell was created. One is an explosion of data on institutional quality and what students actually learn in higher education, and the attendant focus on accountability. Second is the dramatic growth of for-profit postsecondary education. Third is the availability of online learning. Fourth is the massive increase in "nontraditional" students.

The trick, I argue, is to reconfigure Pell accordingly. Today, for instance, Pell offers no incentives for institutions to worry about cost-effectiveness, for students to make cost-conscious choices, or for anyone to accelerate time to completion. We could transform Pell into something more like a federally funded education savings account that recognizes the mix-and-match opportunities and lifetime learning dynamic of the 21st century while incentivizing just that behavior. The bigger point is that the kind of creative rethinking about spending and budgets that's so essential in K-12 is equally critical, but perhaps even less evident, when it comes to higher ed.

Here's one tack: Shorten the eligibility window, reward students and institutions for expeditious progress in completion and employment, and permit students to retain half of any unspent Pell dollars in a dedicated account for future education. You can visit here for the entirety of this short piece, and for the accompanying quick takes.

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