By SUSAN JONES
Pitt’s recently announced plan to match Pell grants starting this fall may be a first for U.S. higher education institutions.
Megan Coval, vice president of policy and federal relations for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said she’s not heard of any similar program within the 3,000 colleges and universities her organization represents.
Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said the idea for the matching program — part of the new Pitt Success model — grew out of the strategic plan’s focus on access and affordability as a primary approach to achieving academic excellence at Pitt. But he said, it received a “breath of fresh air” when Provost Ann Cudd joined the University last fall and made access and affordability one of her top priorities.
The specific idea of matching Pell grants was one that “as soon as it was proposed, we really liked it,” Gallagher said.
He said that universities often face criticism because anytime a newer, expanded federal form of assistance, like Pell, is instituted, it will just be offset by assistance that the universities would otherwise have provided themselves.
“We thought it was a powerful statement, to basically be doubling down on that federal investment and amplifying it,” Gallagher said.
Coval said matching Pell grants is especially significant because the federal aid for low-income students has not kept pace with the cost of college, “and it’s really lost its purchasing power in the past decade or so.”
Next year’s maximum grant will be around $6,200, and Coval says doubling that would put the amount “where the Pell grant should be, if it kept up with its original intent. … It used to cover upwards of 60 to 70 percent of tuition. And now, it really, for a lot of places, only covers 25 or 30 (percent).”
Grants, unlike loans, do not have to be repaid.
Pitt enrolls about 5,000 students from all five campuses who receive Pell grants, and the average grant awarded is $4,500, according to the University. Students whose total family income is $50,000 a year or less can qualify for Pell grants, but most Pell money goes to students with a total family income below $20,000, according to scholarship.com.
Currently, Pitt’s tuition for full-time undergraduate students ranges from $17,614 to $22,826 for in-state students (among the highest for a public university in the U.S.) and from $30,952 to $39,532 for out of state. Pitt had no tuition increase from fall 2017 to fall 2018 but has not determined what the rates will be for next year. Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed flat funding for the four state-related universities, but Pitt is asking for a 6.5 percent increase.
Gallagher said discussions with the Board of Trustees mostly focused on how to fund the Pell match program in the short term, since the program is starting faster than some of the long-term funding sources would materialize.
He said they will look at finding cost savings and efficiencies to offset the $25 million price tag the first year, and they will be “leaning on some of our reserves and other things, which poses a little bit of risk, but we think it’s a very manageable risk.”
In the longer term, Gallagher said that increased enrollment could help fund the program, and “a major component will be voluntary support. We intend to identify scholarship and financial aid support as a top priority for Pitt’s fundraising efforts.”
The Pitt Success program also will include an expansion of financial aid for those with a large amount of unmet need — the gap between total cost of attendance and all forms of financial aid support that a student receives. That part of the plan, which is still be formulated, is trying to limit or cap unmet needs, Gallagher said.
Gallagher said reaction to the Pell match program has been very positive so far.
“A cynic would say, ‘Well, it’s about time that Pitt started moving in this position. … Our higher tuition model and lower state subsidy was causing a lot of questions about the degree to which we met need,” he said. “But even our critics will say this was an important step. I think the Pell matching approach is quite innovative. … I think the most important thing of all, is it’s a great message to prospective students who are looking at Pitt right now.”
The Pitt Success Pell Match joins several other programs that Pitt has announced recently to make college more accessible and affordable. Details on all the programs can be found at affordability.pitt.edu.
Coval said programs like Pitt’s Pell match are ones she likes to bring to the attention of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“I think right now, there’s a lot of scrutiny toward higher education,” she said. “Members of Congress are hearing from their constituents and their members: it’s too expensive; I can’t afford it; it’s gotten out of control. And I think sometimes what’s lost is that institutions are doing really great things and do care and are trying to address this problem.
“We just applaud Pitt for doing this and you can be sure that, when we go to the hill, Pitt’s program is the kind of thing that we’re going to be talking about highlighting that institutions are also very concerned about this and taking it into their own hands.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pXitt.edu or 412-648-4294.