More than 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965 into law. As a result of the civil rights movement, HEA became one of the key pillars of the War on Poverty, expanding college access and affordability to millions. Today, rising college costs and student loan debt of nearly $1.5 trillion are making college further out of reach for millions of low-income students.

Since 1980, college costs have skyrocketed, forcing students and families to shoulder a greater share of college costs. Between 2008 and 2015, tuition increased more than 34 percent. Non-tuition expenses are also on the rise, with low-income students struggling to afford food, housing, child care, transportation and textbooks — basic needs that support college success.

To make matters worse, the Federal Pell Grant, the largest federal grant aid program for low-income students, has lost its purchasing power. While it covered 79 percent of the cost of attending a public four-year institution in 1975, in the 2017-2018 academic year, the maximum Pell award ($5,920) covers less than one third of the cost. More than 60 percent of African-American undergraduates and 50 percent of Latino undergraduates have relied on Pell Grants to pursue a postsecondary education.

College affordability poses unique challenges for the millions of students who do not fit the “traditional” profile of a full-time student who transitions directly from high school to a four-year college. Fifty-one percent of today’s undergraduates live independently from their parents, 40 percent are age 25 or older, 27 percent work full time and 26 percent have their own children. Women make up 71 percent of all student parents, with about 43 percent of the total student parent population being single mothers.

Congress can begin to make college more affordable by:

1. Strengthening

Federal Pell Grants by doubling the maximum grant award, restoring grants to incarcerated individuals and expanding federal student aid for Dreamers.

2. Holding

States and institutions accountable for reducing college costs and reinvesting in higher education.

3. Simplifying

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by increasing the auto-zero expected family contribution income eligibility to $35,000 to allow more low-income students to qualify for a maximum Pell grant.

4. Targeting

Low-income and non-traditional students in debt-free college and free community college proposals, so that students of color, part-time students, older and returning students, student parents and Dreamers can benefit.

5. Increasing

The Income Protection Allowance (IPA) by 35 percent would enable working students to keep a greater share of their earnings and complete their degrees more quickly.

Clearly, the enormous benefits of an affordable postsecondary education outweigh the costs. In a rapidly changing economy driven by technological advancement, a college degree or credential has become more important than ever. College graduates earn 66 percent more than those with a high school diploma and are also more likely to experience positive health outcomes, vote and be more actively engaged in the education of their children.

Now more than ever, federal and state policymakers, along with college leaders, must fulfill their promise to low-income students by ensuring that federal, state and institutional financial aid programs and policies promote greater equity and afford them the opportunity to achieve their greatest aspirations.