The aid gap: Why grants can't keep up with tuition spikes

Tuition Ignition: A week-long series looking at the soaring cost of college at public and private institutions



Need-based federal Pell Grants make up a crucial piece of aid for many low-income students. But look no further than any recent grad's latest loan statement, and you'll see that even with Pell Grants, they're still paying up the nose: In 2008, an astonishing 87% of Pell Grant recipients also had to take out loans. The average value of those loans at graduation? Just shy of $25,000, according to The Project on Student Debt, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Everyone agrees that college is important, so where are the grants? Blame several factors, from lack of political will to the stock market. Congress has seldom made higher education a high priority-tax cuts for the wealthy mean big political contributions, but rarely is cash for strapped students considered political capital. And since the U.S. House and Senate control the Pell Grant coffers, increases come rarely, and only when there is enough urgency -- funding about to run out, for example -- to deal with it. That's ironic when you consider that the grants, introduced in 1973, were the brainchild of the late Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.).