Pell Grants — And Census 2020 — Make College Accessible And Affordable For One Community College Student (And Millions Like Her)

Tara Stadel says attending community college "would not have been possible" without the Pell Grants that helped fund her education. Today, she works part-time and is a full-time student at Cypress Community College, where she is active in campus programs and clubs. She currently has eight mentees through a campus program which works with formerly incarcerated individuals. (Courtesy Tara Stadel)

What's at stake for Southern California in the 2020 Census? Billions of dollars in federal funding for programs like Medi-Cal, for public education, even disaster planning. Political representation in Sacramento and D.C. A census undercount could cut critical resources in L.A. County, home to the largest hard-to-count population in the nation.


Tara Stadel calls herself the "black sheep" of her family. She went through a tough divorce and struggled with alcoholism and, later, drug addiction that led to years of homelessness. After 26 months in a drug court treatment program, and a cumulative year spent in jail, Stadel decided enrolling at Cypress Community College was the next step to improving her life.

While the shift from housewife to homelessness was quick and devastating, perhaps the hardest transition, Stadel said, was re-entry. When Stadel's time in jail ended, she said that she had "only the shirt on her back." Today's high cost of college made education a pipe dream at best. However, Stadel said Pell Grants gave her access to what seemed like an unattainable education and a newfound sense of confidence.

Stadel is just one of many students for whom education became accessible and affordable as a direct result of the Federal Pell Grant Program. The program, which allocates money based on formulas informed by census data, distributed nearly $30 billion in educational funding in fiscal year 2015, according to a U.S. Census Bureau study.

Now sober for four years, she is the vice president of outreach for the From Incarceration to Empowerment Club. Stadel is also spearheading the college's new program, Liberated Intellects for Excellence (LIFE), as a student leader.

"It's like a dream to open up my own addiction recovery program one day. I get insight on how to do it now," Stadel said. All of this, she said, would not have been possible without the Pell Grants that funded her education.

WHAT IS THE FEDERAL PELL GRANT PROGRAM?

The Federal Pell Grant Program is the largest source of federal grant aid to low-income students for undergraduate education. Pell Grants are reserved for students who show "exceptional financial need." The amount students are awarded depends on many factors including what their family is expected to contribute, their status as either a full or part-time student, and the actual cost of attending their college or university.

According to the U.S. Education Department, the maximum federal Pell grant for the 2020-21 award year is $6,345. Even the maximum grant amount is unlikely to fully cover the cost of a 4-year university today, but it can help make it more affordable.

This federal program has played a role in the lives of millions of students. College Board reports that of the 21.9 million students enrolled as undergraduates in the 2018-19 school year, 31%, or 6.7 million students, were Pell grant recipients.

HOW DOES THE CENSUS HELP LOW-INCOME STUDENTS AFFORD COLLEGE?

The Department of Education and Congress treat Pell grants as "entitlements," meaning they aren't tied to a specific school or location, similar to the way scholarships are set up; if you qualify for a Pell Grant, you can take it with you to nearly any college or university.

The Department of Education uses census data with formulas that factor in population and poverty rates to determine expected need for Pell Grants. In fiscal year 2015, the Federal Pell Grant Program was the fifth-largest (of 132 programs) census-informed federally-funded program.

Caitlin Hernandez also contributed to this story.