Stimulus bill could boost Pell Grants

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Education reporter
  • February 05, 2009 @ 9:00 AM

Thousands of Chicago-area college students could get a small boost to their financial aid packages under the economic stimulus bill working its way through Congress.

The version of the bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last week includes as much as $16 billion in new funding for federal Pell Grants.

The grants are generally small – today the largest grants awarded are $4,850 per student – but are highly competitive and lucrative because they don’t have to be repaid.

The additional money Congress could set aside for the grants would raise the maximum award by $500 to $5,350. While that isn’t necessarily enough to make or break a college education for most students, it can make it easier for students to buy textbooks. And for many students, it’s that much less money that they have to repay through student loans.

“We have a large percentage of our students who receive Pell Grants, so it’s really important and welcome news,” says Tom Karow, the senior director of public relations at Roosevelt University.

About 32 percent of the 4,300 undergraduates at Roosevelt University’s downtown campus receive Pell Grants, Karow says.

There are no guarantees that the added funding will make it the rest of the way through Congress, though. Some Republican senators have said the Pell Grant funding wouldn’t directly create jobs, and that it should be removed from the $900 billion economic stimulus bill. The bill could be voted on as soon as the end of this week.

Around Chicago, the number of students getting Pell Grants varies widely from one institution to the next. Only about a 630 University of Chicago undergrads are getting the grants, while nearly 4,000 DePaul University students – a third of all undergraduates there – got Pell grants last year.

Those grants totaled $10.7 million at DePaul, or an average of $2,700 per student, says spokesman John Holden.

“For a great proportion of our students, between (scholarships) and a Pell Grant and a part-time job, that’s how they cobble together being able to go to school,” says Micki Leventhal, the spokeswoman for Columbia College.

Making more money available for Pell Grants is “extremely important,” she says.

At Columbia, 29 percent of students got grants last year totaling $8.7 million. As at many other colleges, the grants are competitive: Only 40 percent of Columbia students who applied for them last year received the grants.

Officials from several other universities in the city could not immediately provide statistics on the numbers of students getting Pell Grants.

The extra $500 that students might be able to receive is relatively small but would help nonetheless, Holden says.

“Obviously, any increase in this area is a good thing,” he says.

Karow agrees.

“We’ve been advocating for it, that’s for sure,” he says.

Peter Sachs is a Chicago-based journalist. He covers higher education for the Daily News.