Pell Grant mission creep: How a federal program for low-income families expanded to the middle class

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American Enterprise Institute


The federal Pell Grant was designed to help low income students pay for college. But over the past two decades, a growing share of middle-income students have become eligible for the program. This was not policymakers’ explicit goal. The change appears to have happened inadvertently and gradually. Eligibility for a Pell Grant is primarily based on the size of the maximum grant that the program awards, and there is no absolute income cutoff. This report examines how the program came to increasingly provide students from middle-income families with grants, particularly those earning between $50,000 and $60,000, focusing on changes that occurred between the 1995–96 and 2018–19 academic years. It concludes with recommendations for policymakers to improve the targeting of the Pell Grant program.



Federal Pell Grant, student financial aid, college affordability, low-income students