I recently met with Andrew Bossie, a first-generation college student from my hometown of Caribou, who is currently a student at the University of Southern Maine. He will graduate this spring, in large part, because Pell grants made it possible for him to afford college. As Andrew told me, "Without Pell grants, there is no doubt that I would not have been able to attend college. Although the current Pell grant award is a huge help, I still feel the stress of sometimes having to decide between a badly-needed new pair of shoes and making my tuition payments."
Our system of higher education is, in many ways, the envy of the world, but its benefits have not been equally available. Unfortunately, family income still largely determines whether students will pursue higher education. Students from families with incomes above $75,000 are more than twice as likely to attend college as students from families with incomes of less than $25,000.
The Pell grant program is the largest source of federal grant aid. In 2006, the Pell program provided approximately $13 billion in grant aid to more than 5.3 million students, including Andrew. The problem is that the maximum grant award of $4,050 has been essentially level-funded for nearly five years. That is why I recently introduced the “Improving Access to Higher Education Act,” which would increase the maximum award to $5,100. While I recognize that an increase of more than $1,000 represents a significant increase in a single year, it is long overdue.
By raising the maximum award to $5,100, Maine would receive approximately $60 million in Pell grant funding, an increase of over $15 million from current levels. This level of funding would provide Pell grants to more than 20,000 Maine students.
My legislation also amends the Higher Education Act to raise the minimum Pell award to $500, up from the current minimum of $400. The minimum award level has not been increased in more than 10 years. I believe we should ensure that every student who qualifies for a Pell receives at least $500.
In addition to our efforts on behalf of Pell, there are other important steps we can take to put higher education in the reach of more families. Ten years ago, in my first year as a Senator, I introduced the "College Affordability and Access Act," which contained three provisions designed to expand access to higher education, and reduce its cost. These three provisions were enacted into law, in amended form, as part of the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997.
The legislation I recently introduced builds upon each of those three provisions. First, in recognition of the increased cost of higher education, my proposal calls for an increase in the tax deduction available for interest paid on higher education loans. Second, my proposal calls for a similar increase in the contribution limit for tax-free "Coverdell Education Savings Accounts. Third, the bill would make permanent the current tax-free treatment of employer-provided educational assistance programs.
It is time for us to make a commitment to raising the Pell maximum award to $5,100, and to providing additional relief to families, such as Andrew’s, who are struggling to afford higher education. Investing in higher education is crucial to our economic future and competitiveness in the global economy, and my legislation represents a sound investment toward making the dream of a college education a reality for more Americans.