Office of the President

Op-ed: Pell grants are game changers for promising college students. I should know, I was one.

Publication Date

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune

President David R. Harris

In 1987, during my senior year in high school, my parents and I were interviewed for a multipart newspaper series on the college search process that ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer. When asked about paying for college, my dad said, “It’s really scary. Consider $16,000 a year at Northwestern!”

To their credit, my parents knew that a college degree would open doors to a world of opportunities beyond what they, as high school graduates, had experienced. They also knew that as a salesman at a local paint store and a Mary Kay cosmetics saleswoman, they would need a lot of financial help, especially since the annual price tag for Northwestern — my school of choice — nearly equaled their combined incomes.

That help included a Pell grant, a federally-backed form of financial assistance reserved for undergraduate students with the most significant financial need. I was lucky. We managed to figure it out and I was able to attend Northwestern as a first-generation college student, which set me on the road to a fulfilling life and a career I love.

Too many promising young people aren’t so lucky, even nearly 35 years later.

At a time when income inequality in the United States is at historic levels and growing, creating equality of opportunity for deserving young adults has never been more vital to the future of this country.

That’s why I feel especially privileged to be president of Union College, a liberal arts and engineering college in New York, as we enter into a unique partnership this week with the Chicago area-based Schuler Education Foundation that will significantly expand opportunities for some of the country’s best young students.

The impact of the Schuler foundation’s philanthropy will extend far beyond the reach of my college.

Union is one of five liberal arts colleges and universities selected as initial recipients of matching grants as part of the Schuler Access Initiative. These grants will allow us to meet the full financial need of even more students who qualify for Pell grant support, based on their families’ ability to afford a college education.

Ultimately, the Schuler foundation has committed to providing up to $500 million to at least 20 institutions over the next decade through a dollar-for-dollar matching program. Fully realized, at least $1 billion will go directly to help students who most need it.

For Union, that means $40 million — $20 million from the Schuler foundation and $20 million from friends of the college, a not-insignificant amount to be raised. But we will raise the money. In fact, some of our most generous alumni have pledged their support and this initiative is a priority for me, the senior leadership team and our board of trustees.

The reason is simple: This is not charity. It’s an investment in the future of our college and, by extension, our country and our world.

Our experience with Pell-eligible students at Union bears that out.

Overall, this group graduates at a higher rate than the student body as a whole and they are well represented among our academic award winners. They are leaders who go on to success after Union. These students belong here and we have a responsibility to expand opportunities for them.

Union is proud of its commitment to meeting the full financial need of every student who enrolls. With Schuler’s support, more outstanding students with the greatest need will get a chance at an education. The Schuler Access Initiative will allow us to expand the number of Pell-eligible students who are on Union’s campus every year by at least 40 — in perpetuity.

As a former Pell Grant recipient, I can’t help but think about all of the opportunities these students will have in life, all of the contributions they will make to their communities and the world around them, and how different their lives could have been if not for support from Schuler and donors.

I think of the recent graduate who is on a path to making the world a fairer place as a human rights lawyer, the alum who has given back to Union by supporting millions of dollars in scholarships, the current student who leads by example in the classroom and on one of our sports teams, to name just a few.

At Union, we like to talk about preparing our students to succeed across multiple tomorrows. Jack Schuler and the Schuler Education Foundation deserve praise for their support of liberal arts higher education and commitment to promising students who simply need the opportunity to shine.

David R. Harris is the president of Union College in Schenectady, New York.

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