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Katie Sanders
By Katie Sanders September 11, 2012

Kal Penn thanks Obama for "doubling funding for the Pell Grant"

Sandwiched between Kal Penn’s laugh lines during his Democratic National Convention speech -- including his appeal for viewers to include "#sexyface" in their tweets about his remarks -- were claims about President Barack Obama’s accomplishments.

"Now, I've worked on a lot of fun movies, but my favorite job was having a boss who gave the order to take out bin Laden, and who's cool with all of us getting gay-married. So thank you, invisible man in the chair, for that," he said, referencing Clint Eastwood’s off-the-cuff remarks to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention. "And for giving my friends access to affordable health insurance and doubling funding for the Pell Grant."

Penn, the Harold and Kumar star who spent a couple years in the White House Office of Public Engagement, was among several speakers who praised Obama for doubling the Pell Grant.

The grant program is a popular, 40-year-old federal subsidy for middle- and low-income students that does not have to be repaid. A person’s eligibility is determined by several factors, including how much money his or her family makes.

Penn’s claim that Pell Grants have doubled is true, in terms of expenditures.

In the 2008-09 academic year, Pell Grant expenditures were about $18 billion. In 2011-12, expenditures are $36 billion.

While funding has doubled, the number of students who receive Pell Grants has increased more slowly. In 2008, the grants assisted 6.1 million students, while in 2012, 9.7 million students received aid, an increase of 59 percent.

Experts point to a few factors to explain increased Pell spending: more people going to or returning to college because of the recession and more people in need of grants because of the recession.

Some recipients are receiving larger awards. Four years ago, the maximum Pell Grant award was $4,731, according to the Department of Education. The max has been $5,550 since 2010. It’s expected to increase to $5,635 in the 2013-14 academic year and will rise in line with inflation through 2017.

"Absolutely, (Obama)’s made it a priority," said Robert Moran, director of federal relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Still, the feds have tinkered with the program’s eligibility as a way to reduce some of the costs. Moran said he’s seen projections that say more than 100,000 students didn’t qualify for grants because of these changes.

Students used to be eligible for a second Pell Grant, known as a "summer Pell," to help them accelerate their degree year-round. This short-lived program was cut as part of the appropriations bill passed in April 2011.

And HR 2055, which Obama signed in December, maintains the maximum award through 2013 but makes several changes to reduce $10 billion in spending over the next decade.For example, the law reduced the maximum number of full-time semesters of eligibility from 18 semesters to 12.

Plus, the grant covers less than it did a decade ago. According to The College Board, it helped with 42 percent of a student’s average tuition, fees, and room and board at public four-year colleges and universities in 2001-02. That fell to 32 percent in 2011-12.

Advocates of the Pell Grant like the expansion but worry about the program’s budget shortfalls and what cuts it may face as lawmakers seek to reduce the deficit.

Our ruling

Kal Penn correctly stated Obama doubled funding for the Pell Grant. It’s true Obama has made maintaining the maximum award for these grants a priority over his tenure, and the result has been a whole lot more spending. To help pay for this spending, though, the federal government has changed some of the program’s eligibility requirements, so that it’s more difficult to get the grants. We rate this claim Mostly True.

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Our Sources

Kal Penn’s remarks at the Democratic National Convention, Sept. 4, 2012

Inside Higher Ed, "Pell Grants in the Spotlight," Sept. 5, 2012

Inside Higher Ed, "A Graduate Student Burden," Aug. 17, 2011

Interview with Robert Moran, American Association of State Colleges and Universities director of federal relations, Sept. 6, 2012

Interview with Kate Levin, The College Board spokeswoman, Sept. 6, 2012

Email interview with Kara Carscaden, Obama campaign spokeswoman, Sept. 6, 2012

Interview with Isaac Bowers, a senior program manager at Equal Justice Works, Sept. 10, 2012

U.S. News and World Report blog post by Equal Justice Works, "How Might Pell Grants Fare Under Obama and Romney?" Sept. 5, 2012

The College Board, Trends in Student Aid2011 and Pell Grant indicators

The College Board, "The Tide Ahead: Upcoming Changes to Financial Aid," February 2012

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "College aid: Obama’s plan eases the burden of education," Nov. 1, 2011

Department of Education, Student aid administration, FY13 request, accessed Sept. 10, 2012

Inside Higher Ed, "Is Pell Too Big?" March 15, 2011

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Kal Penn thanks Obama for "doubling funding for the Pell Grant"

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