Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Congress has faced tough choices about how best to reboot the economy and preserve it from lasting damage. This level of disruption feels unprecedented, but we have been through it before.
The last time the American economy shut down so dramatically was after World War II, when the manufacture of planes and ships all but stopped overnight, supply chains needed time to adjust and renewed consumer demand created temporary surges of inflation.
How did Congress respond then? It pumped additional funding into our most critical economic infrastructure — educational opportunity.
With the GI Bill, Congress gave soldiers returning from the war a chance to invest in themselves by going to college, and, by doing so, created an enormous lift to American global competitiveness. It was an investment that fueled higher education, not consumer spending, and one that quickly paid for itself because of the higher-earning capacity of college graduates. And it more than doubled the percentage of Americans who went to college, thus positioning this country to dominate a knowledge-based economy.
Today, we face the opposite future unless Congress acts — a dramatic overnight decrease in the percentage of college graduates. The best available data shows that freshman enrollment declined by nearly 13% in the fall of 2020, particularly among those who would have been the first in their family to go to college. The impact on those students’ lifetime opportunities — and the impact on American competitiveness — is hard to quantify.
Government investment in higher education, from support of state colleges to the federal support of individual Pell Grants, has been waning for years now. Somehow, we understand that K-12 education is a basic right, as well as a necessity for a functioning economy, but that broad support starts to dissipate after high school. This crisis should remind us all how critical support for higher education is — not just for families sending their children to college, terrified of how they will afford it, but for all of us who reap the benefits of a greater national education level.
Seven million students across the country rely on Pell Grants to pay for college, including 40% of students at Loyola. About 90% of those students come from families that earn less than $50,000 a year. Fifty years ago, Pell Grants covered nearly three-quarters of the cost of going to college; now they cover less than a third of the cost. The “buying power” of federal financial aid has declined sharply over time.
Making a significant increase in Pell Grants is both long overdue and critical, as our economy falters and readjusts from the pandemic. Think about the impact the GI Bill had on so many of our families and the trajectory of American greatness. Imagine how much talent would have been squandered had Congress not been so clever in 1946.
We have that chance again to return to the broad, bipartisan and commonsense support of Pell Grants.
Tania Tetlow is president of Loyola University New Orleans.