Founder of Pell Grants dies at 90
Pell, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1961 to 1997, was Rhode Island’s longest-serving senator. He is perhaps best known for the creation of the Federal Pell Grant Program in 1972. He was also instrumental in passing legislation to create the national endowments for the arts and the humanities in 1965.
“Pell was a patrician public servant who worked hard throughout his career to help ease the burden of the average Rhode Islander,” said Alexander Crary, a former aide to Pell.
Pell Grants are scholarships given to students from middle- to low-income families, and the awards currently range from $400 to $4,731, according to the Department of Education website.
“[Education] never has been a glamour issue,” Pell said in an interview in 1977. “As chairman of the subcommittee, I’ve not benefited hugely by it, but I think we’ve made a lot of progress.”
According to the American Council on Education, the program has for the past 36 years provided more than 108 million grants — about $250 billion in total — for students to attend college.
Pell had to overcome opposition from political parties and interest groups in passing legislation for the grant. “He was an important leader in passing the Pell Grant program through patient work, negotiating and working with the other party. It was a long political negotiation and struggle,” said Thomas Wolanin, another former aide to Pell.
Director of Undergraduate Financial Aid Robin Moscato said that, though Pell Grants are not widely used at Princeton, “the real impact [of the program] is in its national scope in helping so many low-income students attend colleges of all types.” During the 2007-08 academic year, 54 percent of undergraduates received financial assistance from the University, and 10 percent of undergraduates received Pell Grants.
In the 1970s, Pell faced resistance from colleges and universities for his unconventional idea. Most colleges wanted the aid to be provided to institutions for them to distribute instead of being paid directly to students.
Sociology professor Thomas Espenshade, who has conducted research on universities and the educational benefits of diversity, said that though Pell was a large supporter of the National Endowment for the Arts, Pell’s lasting contribution was definitely the Pell Grant program.
“Obviously, he’s made it possible for low-income students to attend college when they might not be able to,” Espenshade said. “It’s been a big benefit to socioeconomic diversity on college campuses.”
A distinguished line of statesmen
Pell, a history concentrator, was a member of Colonial Club while at the University. Classmates from the Class of 1940 said that though he never mentioned it, everyone knew he was wealthy.
Pell’s father, Herbert Pell, was a congressman from New York. His ancestors include congressmen John Claiborne, William Claiborne, Nathaniel Claiborne and former U.S. vice president George Dallas. The original Pell family wealth came from a 1700s royal charter of land from King George III.
“He was among the really upper-class,” Ralph Harkness ’40 said. “People just knew it. He was a very decent, quiet guy.”
Former aides described his leadership style as low-key and modest.
“He was eager for others to take the leadership and credit,” Wolanin said.
Harkness said that Pell’s political career was unexpected. “When I was in school, if I had to pick someone who was not going to become a senator, I would pick him,” Harkness said. “He was very shy.”
Harkness, who worked with Pell in Washington, said that Pell had changed only slightly after becoming a politician.
“I think he was pretty much the same person. He just looked like a politician and talked like one,” Harkness said. “His passions were really the arts and sponsorship of scholarships making it easier for people to get to college.”
Crary said that Pell had a personality that “was not typical for a U.S. senator: self-effacing for sure, a bit quirky.” He emphasized, though, that Pell’s modesty was a hallmark of his personality. “He wasn’t looking to advance his own career [and] always look[ed] to do things that benefit others.”
Crary also described the senator as a loyal alumnus who kept up with many of his Princeton friends. Harkness said that one of Pell’s close friends was former University president Robert Goheen ’40.
Pell was also involved in the Triangle Club and participated in soccer, rugby and cross-country running. He was a member of Whig-Clio, the Democratic coalition and the Anti-War Society.
Herbert Pell routinely sent letters to Princeton requesting that his son be enrolled in higher level courses.
“I was a member of Congress when he was born and all his life he has heard politics discussed at home and naturally has taken an interest in public affairs and has accumulated a fund of general knowledge of government and economics which I believe will make him quite capable of taking this [economics] course with profit to himself and credit to the University,” his father wrote in 1936.
The University ultimately decided it would not allow him to enroll in the class for sophomores, and Pell wrote a letter saying he would opt for elementary Spanish.
On Feb. 28, 1966, the 200th anniversary of the founding of Whig-Clio, Pell delivered the keynote speech at the bicentennial banquet. He was awarded the James Madison Award for Distinguished Public Service.
After graduation, Pell enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard to help Europeans fleeing persecution from the Nazis during World War II. Former history professor Robert Albion wrote a recommendation for Pell in 1941 for the Coast Guard, describing Pell as “natural officer material.”
After his military service, Pell earned a master’s degree from Columbia in 1946 with the help of the G.I. Bill, which provided scholarships to soldiers who had served in World War II. Pell’s former aides said they believe that his idea for the Pell Grants was inspired by the G.I. Bill.
During his service, he fell ill and was sent to the Naval Hospital in Newport, R.I., in 1944 where he met his wife.
Pell is survived by his wife, two of his four children, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
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