The cost of college is a near-universal stressor for American families. Parents are directed to start saving for college from the day their children are born, and 60 percent of college students report worrying about having enough money to fund their education. A college degree, however, remains one of the most valuable investments that an individual can make; according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the difference between the lifetime wages of college and high school graduates is $1 million. Even as this value is widely recognized, for low-income families especially, higher education can seem out of reach. Unfortunately, this pervasive anxiety can discourage students from low-income families from preparing for and pursuing their higher education goals. These students deserve a bright future — and one proposal could change the trajectory of their lives and encourage traditionally underrepresented students to pursue their college dreams.

A stepping stool to success

According to a study from the National Institutes of Health, “While nearly all eighth grade students express a desire to attend college, many give up hope long before this point, never considering applying for financial aid. Figuring that college is out of their financial reach, many high school students from economically fragile families opt for easier high school courses, invest in work or friends rather than school, and stop thinking of themselves as college material.”

These students deserve a bright future — and one proposal could change the trajectory of their lives and encourage traditionally underrepresented students to pursue their college dreams.

A proposal introduced in the past two sessions of Congress, the Early Pell Promise Act, would give these eighth-graders a commitment of college funding via a notification of their eligibility to receive a federal Pell Grant. By dedicating two years of Pell Grant funding to eighth-grade students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, this initiative would provide students, early in their academic career, the motivation and support that stems from knowing that a college education is financially possible.

Time for Congress to act

According to academic researchers Sara Goldrick-Rab and Robert Kelchen, a commitment program such as the Early Pell Promise could increase the enrollment rates of Pell Grant recipients — students from low-income families — by approximately four percentage points, with projected program benefits exceeding program costs.

As Congress works to reauthorize the Higher Education Act — the law governing federal higher education and financial aid programs — it would benefit society as a whole if policymakers build on the success of existing college promise programs and implement an Early Pell Promise Program on a national level. This would encourage students to prepare, both academically and socially, for postsecondary education and set them up for college and career success.