Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

In Memoriam: Senator Claiborne Pell

January 2nd, 2009 by Ajuan Mance

Ret. Senator Claiborne Pell (1918-2009)

He was not African American, he did not attend an HBCU, and he served as U.S. Senator from a state with very few Black people (Rhode Island); but countless African Americans owe their ability get a college education to his work on behalf of low-income college students. Claiborne Pell was largely responsible for creating the Pell Grant program, a federal financial aid program that has helped more than 60 million students pay for college.

Pell Grants are available to college students with family incomes of $55,000 or less, but most Pell Grants are awarded to students with family incomes of $20,000 or less. Many researchers use the number of Pell Grant recipients enrolled as a measure of a college’s commitment to educating low-income students. There are currently 102 federally recognized HBCUs in the United States, and students who qualify for Pell Grants make up the majority at 89 of these institutions. The HBCU with the lowest proportion of Pell Grant qualifiers is Howard University, at 32.5 percent.

In 2005, NAACP National Director of Education John H. Jackson defended the Pell Grant against the threat of budget cuts, noting that,

Over the years, the Pell Grant has been a major source of financial assistance for African American and Latino students seeking a college education. Recognizing that these populations are still underrepresented in America’s colleges and universities, it is both egregious and economically unwise for Congress and this administration to pay for budget shortfalls by enacting fiscal restrictions. These restrictions will impact the college and professional opportunities to minorities whose presence universities and corporations are already struggling to increase.

Claiborne Pell was born in 1918 to a wealthy and politically-active family. The Associated Press describes his upbringing and his entrance into politics:

Pell came from a political family and was a descendant of early New York landowners who lived among the old-money families in Newport. Five family members served in the House or Senate, including great-great-granduncle George M. Dallas, who was a senator from Pennsylvania in the 1830s and vice president under President James K. Polk in the 1840s. His father, Herbert Claiborne Pell, was a one-term representative from New York.

Pell graduated from Princeton in 1940, and served in the Coast Guard during World War II. He remained in the Coast Guard Reserve until retiring as a captain in 1978.

He participated in the 1945 San Francisco conference that drafted the United Nations charter and was a staunch defender of the institution throughout his life.

He served in the foreign service for seven years, holding diplomatic posts in Czechoslovakia and Italy, then returned to Rhode Island in the 1950s. He was elected to the Senate in 1960 after defeating two former governors in the Democratic primary.

AP, Tuesday, January 1, 2009

Claiborne Pell is survived by his wife of 64 years, Nuala, and three children (a daughter died in 2006 at the age of 52).

Posted by Ajuan Mance


Posted in African Americans, Black Students, Claiborne Pell, Current Events, Financial Aid, Higher Education, Pell Grant

2 Responses

  1. DNLee

    I’ve personally thankful for his service. couldn’t have gotten through college with ZERO student loans without his breakthrough legislation. Thank you, Senator Pell. Thank you, Taxpayers!

  2. Keith

    Hey Ajuan, and Happy Hew Year.
    Just wanted to say this was a great post. I wasn’t aware of much of this, so I owe you considerable thanks.

    Keep it up.

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