New ‘Rethinking Pell Grants’ Report Explores Ways to Meet the Needs of Younger and Older Students

Report Offers Recommendations To Make The Pell Grant Program Stronger And More Effective

WASHINGTON — A new report released by the Rethinking Pell Grants Study Group proposes that in order to meet the needs of today’s diverse student body, the Pell Grant program’s one-size-fits-all approach to helping low-income students should be replaced with separate paths for younger college undergraduates and older adults.

The Study Group — convened by the College Board and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation — developed a series of recommendations for improving the Pell Grant program so that it better supports educational access and attainment for low-income students — both younger and older. The 14-member group included experts in higher education finance, student aid, workforce development, college administration and policy analysis. 

The two paths outlined in the Rethinking Pell Grants report — referred to as Pell Y for younger students and Pell A for older adult students — recognize that the Pell Grant program is trying to serve “multiple populations with very different educational and career goals.” The report notes that in 2010, 44 percent of Pell Grant recipients were over the age of 24, while eligibility for a full 60 percent of grant recipients was determined without regard to their parents’ circumstances. The report also notes that completion rates are particularly low for adult learners and suggests that a better Pell Grant program is part of the solution. 

“Many older students are seeking preparation for specific occupations; the Pell Grant program is their most reliable source of funding and should be designed to support them more effectively,” said Sandy Baum, chair of the Study Group. “With so many students – particularly older students – leaving school without earning credentials, we must ask whether a redesigned Pell Grant program could make a difference.”

The Study Group proposes providing strong counseling to older students before they commit to specific institutions and programs, and strengthening the information and guidance available to all students. In addition, the new policy report urges the federal government to:

• Simplify the application process and eligibility determination for both younger and older students;

• Support award levels that fund students based on the number of credits (or other measures of progress) for which they are enrolled, removing restrictions that discourage timely completion, such as not providing funds for summer classes after a regular academic year; 

• Establish a new program of financial incentives for colleges that do the best job of helping Pell Grant recipients complete their academic programs, redirecting funds now devoted to Federal Work-Study and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants to this new program; and

• Create education accounts for low-income children that would accrue funds annually to help them pay for college expenses. 

“The College Board is proud to convene some of the leading experts in financial aid to think through how to make Pell smarter and more effective to improve completion rates for the more diverse demographic of today’s students,”  said Stefanie Sanford, chief of global policy and advocacy at the College Board.

In describing its vision of a new “two-path” structure, the Study Group argued that Pell Grants should be available to help disadvantaged adults and displaced workers pay for needed education and training, but cannot replace wages while students are in school. The federal government should encourage state governments to allow older adult students to supplement their financial aid with existing income support programs to improve their chances of completing college.

The report suggests replacing the traditional need-analysis system now used to determine eligibility for Pell Grants with simple, specified income requirements for adult students. Qualifying adult students should have access through the Pell Grant program to a set amount of funding that makes it possible for them to pay tuition and fees and buy books and supplies.

“The Pell Grant program has a long history of increasing educational opportunities for low-income students, but our student populations are changing,” said James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College and member of the Study Group. “We must find ways to support the growing number of adult learners. Pell A will provide the supports adult learners need to succeed in college and the workforce.” 

More information about the Study Group’s report can be found here.


CONTACT: Carly Lindauer                

[email protected]              


The Rethinking Pell Grants Study Group includes researchers with expertise in higher education finance, student aid and workforce development; college administrators; and policy analysts. We share a concern for increasing meaningful educational opportunities that improve the lives of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and of adults seeking satisfying and remunerative careers. We also recognize the importance of using limited government funds in an efficient and fair manner. We believe that a strong and effective federal Pell Grant program is vital to achieving these goals. The ideas in the group’s report reflect the views of the Study Group alone, but we had conversations with many people whose ideas contributed to our thinking.

The College Board Advocacy & Policy Center was established to help transform education in America. Guided by the College Board’s principles of excellence and equity in education, the Center works to ensure that students from all backgrounds have the opportunity to succeed in college and beyond. Critical connections between policy, research and real-world practice are made to develop innovative solutions to the most pressing challenges in education today. Drawing from the experience of the College Board’s active membership consisting of education professionals from over 6,000 institutions, priorities include: College Preparation & Access, College Affordability & Financial Aid, and College Admission & Completion.