The Pell Grant Poll Tax

When I first saw the online poll at Education Next, I said a lot of dirty words.

A lot.

See, I’ve been here before. Rather, people like me have been here before. But, I get ahead of myself.

Thanks to a policy recommendation from the fine folks at the Brookings Institute there is an honest-to-God debate about requiring poor college-bound students to pass a “college readiness” test to get a Pell grant.

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Pell is a need-based federal grant for college tuition. Students receive an amount based on a needs formula and issued on a sliding scale up to $5,785.

If you think that doesn’t sound like much relative to the cacophony of media accounts about the rising cost of college tuition, you are right.

But, like need, aid is relative.

$5,785 may not do much for you at Duke where tuition exceeds $50,000 a year. But, it can put a serious dent in the tuition at Durham Tech Community College (approx. $13,000). With some state aid, institutional aid, and some luck a student might be able to get some of that workforce training everyone from the President of the United States and all the captains of the private sector claim we need.

Pell grants help poor students overcome the consequences of choosing to be born to parents without means.

For almost the entire history of higher education in this country, college was for the sons (and much later the daughters) of wealthy families. The GI Bill created a national model for distributing aid to students without the benefit of inter-generational wealth to go to college.

But, the GI Bill was not evenly or fairly distributed. Despite the disproportionate number of black men and women who served in the military two decades after it was integrated, black folks had a hard time getting the aid they’d been promised.

Ira Katznelson calls the massive state building that created the white middle class after WWII, the era when affirmative action was white. A combination of sectionalism in national politics, disinterest in challenging the power of the Southern political block, and outright racism at the state level (who were given near unilateral discretion to distribute the money according to the embedded racial violence of the region) circumvented black income mobility during the nation’s greatest period of economic expansion.

When the Pell  grant was created in the 1980s, it promised to reverse the racialized patterns of the GI Bill. There’s a reason it became the “cornerstone” of African American higher education aspirations and achievement. Slavery, apartheid and cultural redlining means black folks tend to not have a lot of that wealth that makes college-going much easier.

The Pell grant turned back a history of building mechanisms for statistical discrimination into a government aid program. Instead of relying on shady state middlemen or congressional dealmaking, individuals can get Pel  regardless of ability or upfront means. That matters. If you know the history of poll taxes and literacy tests, you may realize that the social construction of “ability” has been a critical tool in structural violence against almost every group except wealthy white men. Poll taxes and literacy tests to “qualify” for the vote were a means of social control. Ability could mean whatever those in control of the process wanted it to mean, in accordance to whatever goals they wanted to achieve at the moment.

The idea of attaching ability to a program designed in the shadow of the history of racism, federal benefits, and educational access is to bathe in the post-racial kool-aid.

If you know the kind of racialized, gendered and classist segregation that defines who is and who is not “college ready” AND you concede by ideological imperative that knowledge is a type of capital, then what is a readiness test, exactly?

Well, when those who won’t need Pell grants to send their kids to college are defining all the terms and conditions, “college readiness” is just a poll tax by another name.

Perhaps you can see why the very idea of student aid paternalism doing what’s best for poor kids who “shouldn’t be forced to go to college” doesn’t sit right with me.

If you are concerned about the massive structural volatility that constrains the options of too many then talk about the constraints. I have. I don’t think everyone should HAVE to go to college to make a living wage, get healthcare and age with dignity. That’s why I support raising the minimum wage and instituting federal jobs programs so that those most likely to need a Pell can choose between college and work, like the sons and daughters of wealthy families.

There should be no debate about a college readiness poll tax for one of the few anti-poverty measures still available without a pee test or a moral marriage requirement.

So, I cussed.

I hope you do, too.

google tags: sectionalism, systemic racism, structural violence, poll taxes, literacy tests

25 thoughts on “The Pell Grant Poll Tax

  1. Poll taxes refer to the polls (voting) rather than to education! I think all education should be free (as it is in Finland, which ranks high in education).

  2. Many students at community colleges, where Pell grants (named after Claiborne Pell, Republican senator from Rhode Island years ago) are most common and cover tuition, books, and fees (at least at ours in Missouri) are by definition not college-ready–they have needs hat come in many forms, and we offer lots of developmental classes to get them up to speed. We are not as successful as we should be, for a lot of reasons, but at least students have the chance. Under a proposal like this, a majority of our students wouldn’t even make it in the door to even attempt to qualify for the job training mentioned. This is a terrible idea. If we regard tuition as a kind of poll tax, I take your point, though it does seem a strained metaphor to me–poor white kids would have the same tax, but they were not (usually) those targeted by the poll tax of yesteryear. Thanks for highlighting this.

    1. You’re welcome to talk about white students, I am talking about poor black ones. And the metaphor holds considering literacy and poll tests were also used to disenfranchise poor whites. And, yes, I know for whom Pell is named. Thank you for reading.

  3. I really can’t think of much comment on this post beyond “What she said!”, “Preach!”, etc. The one thing I would add, from my local context, is this follow-up question…

    Dear Brookings folks who launched this “debate”, please complete the following sentence:
    Poor students who assess as not college ready _______…
    (a) should go back in time and become college-ready in high school.
    (b) can clearly become college-ready for free on their own time, by means of [please specify].
    (c) don’t deserve to become college-ready at all, because reasons.

    I teach a public community college where our tuition is $46 per credit (one guess which state!), so $5,785 translates to a big chunk of time in an place whose primary functions includes — guess what? — *making* students into what Brookings would call college ready. Now, obviously all the points about “college-ready” being a racialized/gendered/classis construct hold, and they come very much into play on the ground. (And that part of our mission is only partially “successful”.) Nonetheless, we *are* the kind of institution with a systematic mechanism that at least is *designed* to build college-readiness in people who are already adults. It’s hard to see any similarly widespread alternatives.

    Where does Team Readiness Test think post K-12 development of so-called college-readiness should happen? Do they not know? Or not care?

  4. I must be a tad slow. Pell grants are grants to pay for college. Colleges decide whom to admit. Other than colleges which deliberately admit students simply to pocket the tuition aid money, and don’t care about the students’ success, what is the issue?? If rent-seeking colleges are the problem, the solution lies in regulating the hell out of them, not in using a guaran-damn-teed to be shoddy measure of “readiness” imposed on poor folks.

      1. There were filtering mechanisms (called “underwriting guidelines”) for mortgage origination in 2006, too.

  5. Thank you for calling it, (metaphorically speaking) like it is. Another barrier for poor folks to jump. It seems that some in our society are doing everything in their power to keep the poor in their place. What about access to education which allows for upward mobility?
    Keep writting about the social injustices that abound.

  6. Pell Grants are not like unrestricted money. They only help students if the students can use them to advance academically and/or in the workforce. To me it is not racist, sexist, or classist to ask whether the proportion of under-prepared low-income, minority, or male students who get the end benefit of Pell (graduation, transfer, or certificate) is enough for us to designate it an effective tool for that advancement.

    I am a big fan of the CC system, but if we look at the sub-set of students who require more than one developmental course in my state, I see huge drop-out and failure rates, event though Pell covers the entire cost for low income students. Either CC itself is not the right tool for effecting advancement for most of these students, or else within the CC we are not offering a curriculum that meets their present needs.

      1. I think structures and institutions ask questions too, implicitly if not explicitly.

        How do you respond to my second paragraph? If the structures and institutions render poor and minority students unprepared (and they certainly often do), shouldn’t we stop doing business as usual (by sending them into classes that they don’t pass) in our efforts to give them the traction they need? Shouldn’t we be devising curriculum options that do result in success?

        The classrooms I’m familiar with (in CC’s) are not serving these students well, even when their finances are in order. And not because the instructors are weak.

        1. The trouble is that a lot of students have spent their K-12 years in institutions that aren’t preparing them — colleges can’t wave the “new curriculum” wand and fix this in any kind of hurry. Unless we dedicate economic and cultural and social resources to creating a track of high-school-for-people-whose-high-school-failed-them classes at the college level, we’ll keep ending up here. And I’m not talking a semester or a year of developmental; many students need years of full-time work to get to what we generally think of as “college level.” They don’t come to us with that toolbox in hand.

          So that’s Thing #1. Then there’s Thing #2, here at the community college level, which is that many of our students are scraping by on thin margins. Without Pell or something like it, they just can’t be here. End results be damned — college is expensive. Even community college. When you have to look at the $15 in your pocket and make it cover food and gas and miscellaneous problems for the next two weeks, paying ~$500/class (or whatever your local rates are) becomes a massive undertaking. Students who have walked out of K-12 without “college level” toolboxes are often shunted into low-paying jobs. College is a huuuge stretch for a lot of them. A lot of my trench time was as a financial aid advisor; I guarantee that without Pell, many folks would simply vanish from our halls.

          The people who underperform might be a group that overlaps with historically disadvantaged groups. And either or both of those might overlap with the group of people who get Pell. That doesn’t mean Pell money is being wasted, any more than it means that members of historically disadvantaged groups are dumber or lazier or etc. A whole host of things affect a student’s performance in college. A lot of those happen outside the classroom; a lot of them happen outside the control of the individual. We do need to stop doing business as usual, but we need to stop it at more levels than college.

          1. Totally agree. I’m not supporting limiting Pell Grants to those who are prepared. I’m proposing something like what you are proposing. Although even more so, I’m proposing that students get a better K-12 education because a lot of what you need to learn in order to be prepared for college is not easy to learn once you are over 18 and have increasing other responsibilities.

            I’m also just saying that what we’re doing now — funneling underprepared students into developmental classes which they don’t pass — is a non-starter. Once you are 18, and not prepared for traditional academic, classroom-based education, the clock is ticking (and I don’t believe there is anything we can do about that for most students; they are adults and do not want to be “remediated” forever) we should have options like the European apprenticeship/on-the-job-training system. And a decent wage scale for those who don’t pursue college.

            Don’t forget that even in the highest income quintile, only 50% of students complete a 4-year degree. Doesn’t that tell us something about what young people are facing?

        2. Unless you are working to improve the K-12 model, by among other things providing the needed funding, this is just more blame the victim garbage. CCs do work for a lot of the unprepared students moving them on to success in college (just got word of one student from a CC that I work with moving on to grad school at Berkeley in physics). Even the ones who “fail” often have substantial improvement.

          so yeah, concern trolling gets zero points with Eli

      1. I would trust more what comes directly from the Department of Ed rather than a college (even from my home state). It seems that is more wishful thinking than fact.

  7. “If you know the kind of racialized, gendered and classist segregation that defines who is and who is not “college ready”…”


    I’ve worked in lower-echelon higher-ed for a while, and this is something I slam into every single day. A lot of the problems that students face are caused by systems — social, cultural, economic, what-have-you. And these problems have an inverse relationship to whiteness, maleness, wealth, and all the other things we euphemistically call “socioeconomic status.” But a lot of the solutions that people propose are individual — instead of repairing the systems, we shift the burden to students and penalize them for not meeting standards that were often designed to be out of their reach…

    Sorry; didn’t mean to drop Sociology 101 on a sociologist’s home turf. I’ve just been in the trenches for years now and I’m excited to see you dissecting this. Keep your scalpel sharp!

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