By Christopher T. Cross

Pell Grants, the need-based government financial aid program currently supporting about 6.2 million college students could more fittingly be called Nixon Grants. As a Nixon appointee at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, I worked on the legislation that created Pell Grants, the Higher Education Act of 1972. On June 23rd, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing by President Nixon. Here is the little-known backstory of the program that continues to help students achieve dreams of a college education

The Education Amendments of 1972 are well known for creating Title IX, the Federal law banning discrimination based on gender in education. However, arguably, the most important education program created in the past 50 years was in another title of that law. In fact, in the intervening decades, over 120 million Pell Grants have been awarded. While an unduplicated number is not available, it is likely that between 25-35 million Americans have used these grants to attend college and a great many of these recipients are the first in their families to enroll. In the most recent year for which there is data, almost 34 percent of college students have been Pell recipients, in California alone, that is over 939,000 students.

The argument can also be made that these grants have become a great equalizer for students of color. Fifty-eight percent of Black undergraduates and forty-seven percent of Hispanic students are recipients. Fifty-one percent of Native Americans, including students from Alaska and Hawaii, were awarded financial support.

Initially known as Basic Education Opportunity Grants (BEOGs), in later re-enactments Congress made the decision to rename them after Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI), then the chair of the Senate education subcommittee. Pell, along with Senators Jacob Javits (R-NY) and Harrison Williams (D-NJ), and Representatives Al Quie (R-MN), John Brademas (D-IN) and Carl Perkins (D-KY) were the key Congressional authors of the law.

Surprisingly, the reaction from the higher education community was not initially favorable. Pell Grants are an individual entitlement for those who qualify and, as economists are wont to say, students carried Pell “in their backpacks.” If a student did not enroll, the college would not get a cent of Pell funding. This made it invaluable for colleges to recruit students. In fact, the higher education lobby wanted the money to be allocated to institutions without regard to enrollment of eligible students. That would have meant that a college catering to high-income families would have no incentive to recruit eligible and deserving students.

Almost the lone dissenter among the higher ed community was The College Board’s Washington representative, Lois Rice, mother of the current White House Domestic Council director, Susan Rice. Lois Rice both challenged that rationale and made impassioned pleas to committee leadership in both parties and both Houses of Congress to support the “backpack” concept set forth in the Nixon Administration’s position as outlined in Nixon’s proposal of 1970, The Higher Education Opportunity Act.

In President Nixon’s statement accompanying the proposed bill in 1970, the first sentence says “No qualified student who wants to go to college should be barred by lack of money. That has long been an American goal; I propose that we achieve it now…I propose that we expand and revamp student aid so that it places more emphasis on helping low-income students than it does today.” If Richard Nixon had not signed the 1972 act it is quite likely that the number of college attendees would have been reduced and the nation would have been less prosperous in the years to follow.

The Nixon Administration’s position, aligned with Ms. Rice, was led in the White House by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Dana Mead of the Domestic Council and Paul O’Neill at the Office of Management and Budget. At the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Secretary Elliot Richardson took the lead along with a team of analysts and policy leaders. I was a member of that team.

When the bills in the House and Senate came to their respective floors, the air was filled with tension over issues of school busing. On the substantive side, the bills had genuine bipartisan support in both Houses of Congress.

The Constitution gives the President ten days to sign or veto a bill. For this legislation, the ten days fell on June 23, 1972. Secretary Richardson was in the White House on other matters when he and I were summoned to John Ehrlichman’s office to prepare for a press briefing that would focus on what was now a new law, having been signed by President Nixon earlier that morning.

The lasting importance of this legislation was not immediately recognized. After Richardson’s statement on the bill, every question was about school busing and the major media stories that followed never mentioned a word about the significance of the student grant program or the presence of a title that outlawed discrimination based on gender.

Fifty years later, the Education Amendments law stands as a landmark in national policy as the single most important higher education law. Almost $30 billion in grants now supports college students in the places they and their families choose. That is something we can all celebrate.

Richard Nixon was brought up in near poverty. He worked nights in the family store to pay his way through Whittier College, where he graduated in 1934. He then attended Duke Law School on a scholarship. It is fitting that as President he took the opportunity to create what would become the most important program supporting students in the nation’s history, assisting tens of millions of our young people to achieve their dreams of a college degree.

Today, Whittier College is representative of the colleges throughout the country that continue to assist hundreds of first-generation students, among others, to achieve their dreams with the support of the grant program that was created fifty years ago by the 37th President of the United States.

Christopher T. Cross was the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Education Legislation in HEW in 1972. He is also an alumnus and on the Board of Trustees of Whittier College.