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Senate introduces bills to provide college students additional federal aid

By Megan Tagami

July 16, 2021 6:18 p.m.

Two Congressional bills would expand financial aid to college students and help address housing and food insecurity at California universities.

Senate Democrats introduced the Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act on June 16. Senate and House Democrats introduced the updated Basic Assistance for Students in College Act on June 10 and 11, respectively. Both acts aim to support college affordability and students’ daily basic needs.

According to the bill’s fact sheet, the Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act would double the maximum Pell Grant award from $6,495 to up to $13,000 over five years. The bill would also expand eligibility to undocumented students protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy and increase the amount of aid offered to part-time students.

The BASIC Act would allocate $1 billion in grants for colleges to research and implement programs supporting students’ needs, such as food, housing, childcare and transportation, according to a press release from Senator Alex Padilla of California.

The introduction of the Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act followed the University of California and University of California Student Association’s Double the Pell campaign, launched in February, that advocated for doubling the amount of aid offered through the Pell Grant.

Currently, 35% of undergraduate UC students are Pell Grant recipients. However, the federal money contributed through the Pell Grant falls short of the aid provided by either the Cal Grant or the UC by over $300 million, according to an emailed statement from the UC Office of the President. By increasing federal aid, Congress would provide low-income students the crucial support they need to attend college, the statement added.

Lauren Valles, the UCSA’s Fund the UC Campaign vice chair, said doubling the Pell Grant would benefit all UC students regardless of income level because universities would have more funds to allocate to students of different income.

“Cost should never be a reason a student chooses not to go to college,” said Valles, a fourth-year political science student. “Double the Pell stands to benefit all UC students … starting at groups who feel the intensity of college and cost of attendance the most.”

According to a report from the New American Economy and the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, the state of California has the largest undocumented college student population in the United States. The University of California alone enrolls approximately 4,000 undocumented students, according to a report from the UC Collaborative to Promote Immigrant and Student Equity and the Undocumented Student Equity Project.

Aidan Arasasingham, UCSA President and UCLA alumnus, said one of UCSA’s key priorities was ensuring that undocumented students would be eligible for federal aid under the act.

“We want to make sure that the students who fall into the cracks can access this vital resource going forward,” Arasasingham said.

The UC and UCSA also expressed support for the BASIC Act. According to an emailed statement from the UCOP, the UC helped develop the BASIC Act when it was first written and introduced in both the House and Senate in 2019. The UC has since continued to work on the BASIC Act with its sponsors, the statement added.

Padilla, who sponsored the BASIC Act, said in an emailed statement that the bill also mandates data sharing across federal departments to better connect students with federal aid programs such as Medicaid and federal housing assistance.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to the growing crisis of poverty among college and university students,” Padilla said in the emailed statement. “The BASIC Act will help students focus on their goal – graduating.”

Prior to the BASIC Act’s introduction, the federal government played a limited role in supporting students’ needs, Arasasingham said. However, given the pandemic’s impact on an already-existing basic needs crisis, the BASIC Act’s passage is more important than ever, Arasasingham added.

Valles said although she believes Congress is taking an important step in expanding college access through the Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act, there is still work to be done.

Valles said Congress should expand Pell Grant eligibility to undocumented students who are not protected by DACA and are currently excluded from the act.

Ideally, the Pell Grant should also be doubled over a shorter amount of time, allowing current recipients to reap the full benefits of increased federal aid, Valles added. Under the proposed act, the Pell Grant would reach its maximum award amount of $13,000 by the 2028-2029 school year, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Although the Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act did not pass Congress when it was first introduced in 2017, Arasasingham said the bill has a stronger chance at passing in 2021 due to President Joe Biden’s commitment to doubling the Pell Grant during his election campaign. The BASIC Act also follows Biden’s priority to build back better by investing in marginalized populations and American families, Arasasingham added.

“I think that the moment is now, and we’re seeing support for these kinds of basic needs investments in a way that we haven’t seen over the past four years,” Arasasingham said.

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Megan Tagami
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