My college journey has been long and winding. I was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to the Bronx when I was 4 years old. I have had to work twice as hard to prove myself throughout my whole educational life.
When it came time to go to college, my parents and I struggled to know where to begin. We knew nearly nothing about how to apply to a school, or even that the FAFSA existed. Language barriers impeded my parents’ attempts to understand the complex financial aid process. With little guidance, I found my way to college upstate.
Unfortunately, the school was a bad fit, and not just because I missed the bodegas back home. I was hoping to study political science, which was not the institution’s specialty. I transferred to the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), in New York City, bringing very few of my credits with me. Essentially starting over, and facing a lack of academic and financial support, I struggled to get back on track.
I worried that maybe college just wasn’t for me. But after taking some time off, I went back to school — again in New York City — to continue my academic journey.
Related: Doubling the Pell Grant will make college a reality for more students like me
Since then, I have spent hundreds of dollars each semester on riding the subway to school. When I couldn’t find the money to buy a MetroCard, I just had to miss class. To afford to pay for food and transportation, I worked two part-time jobs, with half my income going to these living expenses and the other toward helping out my family. There have been days when I’ve sustained myself on nothing but a bag of chips to get through all my classes. It’s difficult to focus on school when you are working 30 hours a week and worried about where your next meal will come from or how you’ll afford to get to class.
I eventually earned my associate degree, and I am now a student at the City College of New York, currently working on my bachelor’s. I am just four electives away from graduating. But due to my nontraditional college path, I ran out of Pell this year.
There are many important changes higher education leaders and policymakers can make to ensure that first-generation learners and students from low-income families have the support they need to complete their college journeys. Chief among them is simply making sure we can actually pay to do so. There is one specific step policymakers can take that would have a considerable and immediate impact: doubling the federal Pell Grant.
About 70 percent of students who leave college are forced out by financial hardship.
My story is not unusual. More than one-third of college students transfer, and nearly half of those transfer more than once. Just 40 percent of students graduate within four years. Many never graduate at all; 36 million Americans have attended college but never earned a degree or credential. One in five of these learners completed more than three-quarters of their credits before stopping out. About 70 percent of students who leave college are forced out by financial hardship.
Those financial challenges go beyond paying tuition. Just surviving can be expensive. In one large-scale survey in 2019, nearly 60 percent of undergraduates at community colleges said they were experiencing some form of housing insecurity and nearly half were experiencing some form of food insecurity.
The pandemic has only exacerbated the challenges that students from underserved communities face — and made the need to provide them with greater financial support even more urgent. Last fall, 38 percent of students said they were worried they did not have enough money to last the semester.
Meanwhile, enrollment continues to fall, with undergraduate enrollment down more than 9 percent since the spring of 2020.
Doubling the Pell Grant can help reverse these terrible trends.
Related: Pell changes could mean more eligible students, more money, more programs
For five decades, Pell has been the cornerstone of college financial aid in the U.S., with more than six million students per year depending on Pell Grants to pay for their education. Unfortunately, the aid Pell provides has been dramatically outpaced by rising college costs.
When Congress first created Pell in the 1970s, the award could cover more than three-quarters of the cost of a four-year degree at a public institution. Today, it covers less than a third of the cost.
In his State of the Union address in March, President Joe Biden proposed expanding the Pell Grant by about $2,000. This would be an encouraging start, but doubling the Pell Grant would have an even greater impact on students. Doubling Pell — from a maximum of $6,495 to $12,990 — would restore its purchasing power to more than half the cost of college for a bachelor’s degree at an in-state, public institution, advocates say. That’s a life-changing amount of aid for students like me.
I am doing all I can to ensure that I stay enrolled and finally graduate. I am working and applying for scholarships — and hoping for the best.
Students like me should not have to wish upon a star for the financial means to complete their degrees. Increasing the maximum award under Pell would immediately put more financial aid directly into the hands of the learners who need it most.
Policymakers cannot stand by as higher education loses a generation of learners from low-income communities. We are the leaders of tomorrow. Doubling Pell would be an important investment in both the education of young college students and the future of this country.
Darleny Suriel is a program assistant for the New Designs to Advance Learning program at the Carnegie Corporation. She is in the final semester of her senior year at City College.
This story about Pell Grants was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.