The federal Pell Grant program was designed to help college students coming from low-income families afford the high cost of going to college without getting buried in debt. But the Pell Grant now covers less than one-third of the cost of attendance at public four-year university, the lowest in its history.

Where the maximum Pell Grant once covered the entire cost of obtaining a two-year degree and 77 percent of the cost at a public university in 1980, it now covers only 62 percent of the cost of a two-year degree and 36 percent towards a public four-year degree.

Even though the Pell Grant has never covered such a small fraction, it's been subject to repeated attempts to cut it and make sure it continues to shrink in the future. At the same time, the cost of college is projected to increase faster than inflation.

Meghan McClean, director of policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said the Great Recession has created a "perfect storm": More people are going back to school, states have scaled back higher education support, and tuition is growing faster than the Pell Grant can keep up.

The History

Pell Grants were born during Richard Nixon's presidency. The Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, later renamed the Pell Grant, was created in a 1972 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965. The HEA was a piece of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society agenda, sometimes referred to as the War on Poverty, and it's subject to reauthorization every five or six years. The Pell Grant was named for Sen. Claiborne Pell, a popular Rhode Island Democrat, who served from 1961 to 1997, and died in 2009.

The population of college students greatly increased during the 1960s and '70s, as the boomer generation headed off to school. After creating a federal student loan program, money which must be paid back after graduation, the Pell Grant program was added to provide money which does not need to be repaid.

The idea was to ensure access to higher education for lower income people, since, according to census data, college graduates earn 82.8 percent more than those who only obtain a high school diploma -- almost twice as much. That gap has been growing quickly since the start of the Pell program.

Declining Support, Increasing Tuition

The cost of obtaining a college degree has increased 1,120 percent over the past three decades, about five times the rate of inflation, and a rate with which the Pell Grant simply isn't able to keep up.

The maximum grant in the first year of the program was $452, but quickly increased to $1,400 within a couple of years. That first year though, the maximum $452 Pell Grant covered almost all of a student's tuition, since the average tuition at public universities in 1973 was $490. Last year, the average in-state tuition was $8,244, while the maximum Pell Grant was $5,550.

Some states set in-state tuition far higher, like Pennsylvania State University, where in-state tuition was $15,250 in 2010-11. And many Pell Grant students do not receive the full $5,550, since the grant amount is dependent on a number of variables including family size and income. Nevertheless, half of recipients come from families earning $15,000 or less annually.

Despite the high cost, more high school graduates are going on to college than in 1973 when the Pell Grant began, but they're also going into debt in the process.

Nine out of ten Pell Grant recipients have student loan debt, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. Data from the Department of Education shows they're more than twice as likely to take out student loans as students not receiving Pell Grants.

Abby Miller, an independent consultant who's worked with the Pell Institute, says the Pell Grant's purchasing power has suffered a "pretty dramatic drop, especially when you look at the amount of loans that Pell recipients are taking out." Miller says student debt over the last 10 years for Pell recipients has increased by 90 percent, while their starting salaries upon graduating have only increased by 9 percent.

So students from the poorest families who receive Pell Grants are graduating college with more debt than ever before.

The income achievement gap between children from the richest families and the poorest has grown during the same period: Thomas Edsall noted in a recent New York Times column that "the income achievement gap between children from the highest and lowest income deciles is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born in 1976."

In addition, as the poverty rate has increased since 2008, the number of people applying for federal financial aid has skyrocketed. The number of Pell Grant recipients has grown from 3.9 million in 2000-01 to 9.1 million in 2010-11.

But instead of supporting this assistance for students pursuing a college degree, Congress has sought to cut Pell Grants and turned the program into a political football.

Recent Cuts

President Barack Obama increased Pell grants in his stimulus bill -- the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The president then proposed indexing Pell Grants for inflation and increasing the Pell to $5,975 by 2020, but Congress never followed up to enact that into law.

When Republicans took the House majority in 2011, the first piece of legislation passed included a $5.7 billion cut to Pell Grants, though the bill never made it through the Senate. Later, however, Pell Grants were cut during the debt ceiling debacle in the summer of 2011.

But in the Budget Control Act of 2011 -- a deal reached between Congress and the president to raise the debt ceiling -- overall Pell Grant funding was boosted.

Then, in December 2011, when a government shutdown was looming, the deal congressional leaders struck included a provision which preserved the maximum Pell Grant, but reduced eligibility to use them from 18 semesters to 12. An estimated 62,000 to 100,000 students could be hurt by this change.

The summer Pell Grant has also been eliminated.

Increasing the maximum Pell Grant is not a cheap task. The Congressional Research Service says it costs between $500 million and $700 million for every $100 increase. That may explain why the most recent proposal in the U.S. Senate was only to increase the maximum grant by $85. But even as the maximum grant is scheduled to increase, the Congressional Budget Office projects the cost of the Pell Grant program will actually decline slightly and then remain stable over the next decade.

Contrary to what the Wall Street Journal editorial board recently declared, Pell Grants haven't been responsible for rising tuition. States have scaled back support for public higher education since 1985, causing universities to rely more on tuition than state dollars. Tuition hikes have followed, especially during the recession. But Congress hasn't boosted Pell Grants along with them.

The Paul Ryan budget, widely endorsed by members of the GOP, would reduce the maximum grant to $3,040, according to the national nonprofit Education Trust.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops specifically cited cuts to Pell Grants as one of their prime concerns in a letter sent to congressional leaders earlier this year. The letter said Pell Grants and other programs for low-income Americans were "essential for human dignity," adding, "We fear the pressure to cut vital programs that protect the lives and dignity of the poor and vulnerable will increase.”

McClean, of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said the higher education community has had to fight to preserve the maximum Pell Grant and needs to realize that as long as the federal government is financially strained, the program could be in jeopardy.

"Even though everything's on the table," McClean says, "we need to know as a country [the Pell Grant] is important to our future and our national competitiveness."

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America Aug. 29 and Sept. 5 from 12-4 p.m. EDT and 6-10 p.m. EDT. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.

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  • Alabama - 8.7 Percent

    The Auburn University Board of Trustees approved <a href="" target="_hplink">an 8 percent tuition increase</a> for undergrads and a 9 percent hike for graduate students. In-state medical students at the University of Alabama will <a href="" target="_hplink">see a 4 percent tuition</a> increase, while dental students get a 6 percent hike and 8 percent for optometry students. For other UA students, <a href="" target="_hplink">ABC3340 reports</a> a 7 percent jump for students attending the main campus in Tuscaloosa, 8.6 jump for students at UAB and 8.7 percent at the Huntsville campus. After increasing tuition by <a href="" target="_hplink">almost 13 percent</a> last year, Jacksonville State University promised they will hold tuition level if the state doesn't cut their funding. Alabama's public colleges and universities <a href="" target="_hplink">are facing a 5 percent cut</a> from state appropriations. Photo Credit: <a href="" target="_hplink">Carol M. Highsmith</a>

  • Arizona - No Increase

    After double digit tuition <a href="" target="_hplink">hikes in each of the past four years</a> at the University of Arizona and Arizona State University, college students have some good news for the fall of 2012; a freeze on tuition for the first time in 20 years. Actually, the state will be <a href="" target="_hplink">pouring $21 million</a> in their public higher education institutions. Photo Credit:<a href="" target="_hplink"> Jscarreiro</a>

  • California - 9 Percent

    The University of California approved a 9 percent fee increase for next year. If a ballot proposition to raise taxes in November isn't approved, they may increase by <a href="" target="_hplink">another 6 percent</a>. UC got a 20 percent cutfrom the state this year. California State University was cut by 27 percent.

  • Florida - 8 To 15 Percent

    The University of Central Florida<a href="" target="_hplink"> has lost $150 million</a> the last five years, leading to job losses and the end of certain majors. Now they're <a href="" target="_hplink">going to implement</a> a <a href="" target="_hplink">15 percent tuition increase</a>. The University of Florida is looking at a <a href="" target="_hplink">9 percent tuition hike</a>. Florida A&M University voted to raise tuition by 8 percent. Florida State University approved increasing tuition by <a href="" target="_hplink">15 percent</a> across the board, but the actual cost is going up only 11.3 percent because fees aren't increasing at the same rate. Gov. Rick Scott said he is against tuition increases was, according to a spokesman, "confident [universities] can find a way to ... avoid tuition hikes that will put a greater financial strain on students and their families." He vetoed a bill that would've allowed the state's major universities to raise tuition without limits.

  • Hawaii - 35 to 46 Percent

    When it comes to tuition increases, many states have scaled back this year. However, <a href="" target="_hplink">Hawaii is an exception</a>: <blockquote>[A]nnual tuition at UH-Manoa will rise by 35 percent over the next five years for a resident undergraduate student -- to $11,376 a year in 2016, from the current $8,400 a year. Tuition next year will rise by $264, to $8,664. Resident tuition at UH-West Oahu will go up 49 percent over five years, to $7,656 in 2016-2017, from $5,136 this year, equal to what UH-Hilo students would pay.</blockquote> Photo Credit: <a href="" target="_hplink">Travis.Thurston</a>

  • Illinois - 4.5 Percent

    The<a href="" target="_hplink"> state legislature in Illinois</a> slashed $152 million from the higher education budget, or about 6 percent. Western Illinois University approved a <a href="" target="_hplink">4.5 percent increase</a> on tuition for next year. The University of Illinois <a href="" target="_hplink">approved</a> a 4.8 percent increase and Illinois State University sought a 4.4 increase. <em>Photo Credit: <a href=",_Lorado_Taft.jpg" target="_hplink">Daniel Schwen</a></em>

  • Iowa - 3.75 Percent

    The Board of Regents <a href="|head" target="_hplink">approved a 3.75 percent tuition </a>increase this fall for the state's public universities. After having their funding from the state legislature slashed by 25 percent over the past three years. But this year, they're getting a $23 million increase from the state legislature.

  • Louisiana

    Thanks to continued budget cuts, Louisiana students can expect to get some significant tuition increases and watch out for mid-year cuts. <a href="" target="_hplink">According</a> to the <em>Times-Picayune</em>, since 2008, Gov. Bobby Jindal and state lawmakers have stripped nearly $427 million in state general funds from higher education. Nicholls State University lost $4.4 million, a 7.6 percent drop in funding from the state. They're hinting at tuition increases. The University of Louisiana System is got a cut this year of $55 million, and will likely implement tuition increases to avoid any layoffs. Community colleges will feel a pinch too. The Advocate <a href="" target="_hplink">reports</a>: <blockquote>The Board of Supervisors at Louisiana Community and Technical Colleges ... approved an across-the-board 10 percent tuition increase at their 16 campuses, including the five technical college campuses in the Baton Rouge area.</blockquote> Photo Credit: <a href="" target="_hplink">Stuart Adams</a>

  • Maine - No Increase

    The University of Maine system lost $2.3 million in state appropriations this year, but they <a href="" target="_hplink">decided against</a> implementing tuition hikes. Photo Credit: <a href="" target="_hplink">NightThree</a>

  • Massachusetts - 4 Percent

    The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees plans to impose a 4.9 percent tuition hike, but Gov. Deval Patrick <a href="" target="_hplink">objected the night</a> before they were to vote on it: <blockquote>"Like the rest of state government, UMass must demonstrate that it is doing more with less before asking more from students. And I am not convinced that UMass has yet done enough to find efficiencies and reduce costs so that any new revenue is dedicated to teaching and learning," Patrick wrote in his letter that was hand-delivered on the day of the vote.</blockquote> The Board passed it 10-2. Photo Credit:<a href="" target="_hplink"> Lion Hirth</a>

  • Michigan - 3.95 Percent

    Eastern Michigan University are getting a 3.95 percent tuition increase. The <em>Free Press</em> <a href="" target="_hplink">reported</a> on June 19: <blockquote>University of Michigan and Michigan Technological University will set tuition rates on Thursday. Michigan State University is expected to do so on Friday. Wayne State University is expected to set its rates June 27.</blockquote> Photo Credit: <a href="" target="_hplink">AndrewHorne</a>

  • Nebraska - 3.75 Percent

    The University of Nebraska is considering <a href="" target="_hplink">a 3.75 percent </a>tuition hike for next year. During the past four years, UNL students have seen their tuition increase by 15 percent -- more than double the rate of inflation: <blockquote>Looking back further, to 2000, tuition and fees have grown by 115 percent, or about three times the rate of inflation. During that time frame, the consumer price index rose 34 percent.</blockquote> Photo Credit: <a href=",_Hamilton_Hall.jpg" target="_hplink">Bkell</a>

  • New Jersey

    When Gov. Chris Christie took office he imposed a 4 percent tuition increase cap. Then he decided he <a href="" target="_hplink">didn't like that idea</a> a year later. Currently, New Jersey's public colleges have been in a bit of chaos as the<a href="" target="_hplink"> state considers a major overhaul and merger</a>.

  • New York - 31 Percent Over 5 Years

    City University of New York is <a href="" target="_hplink">currently raising tuition by 31 percent </a>over five years. Undergrads will pay $6,330 in 2015-16, with about $500 a year in additional fees. Despite being much lower than nearby public universities in the Northeast, students still took to the streets to protest. State University of New York is undergoing a <a href="" target="_hplink">similar five-year plan</a>. Photo Credit: <a href="" target="_hplink">CUNY on Facebook</a>

  • Ohio - 3.5 Percent

    Ohio State University, the University of Toledo and Cleveland State University are all planning a 3.5 percent tuition hike -- the maximum they are <a href="" target="_hplink">allowed under state law</a>. Photo Credit: <a href="" target="_hplink">Xurxo</a>

  • Oregon - 6.1 Percent

    The University of Oregon will have a 6.1 percent tuition increase. However, with decreased fees, it will amount to a 5.9 percent increase. Students weren't happy about that and held protests on campus. Dozens of students <a href="" target="_hplink">made their way into the UO president's office</a> to voice their opposition to the tuition increase.

  • Pennsylvania - 3.9 to 10 Percent

    Gov. Tom Corbett (R) put forward a budget proposal that<a href="" target="_hplink"> would cut the state's 14 public universities</a> by 20 percent in 2012-13, with a 34 percent reduction over two years. It's been met with <a href="" target="_hplink">multiple protests</a>. The state spends nearly twice as much on corrections as it does on higher ed. When asked about <a href="" target="_hplink">the cuts to higher education in mid-March</a>, Corbett had this to say: <blockquote>"We are reducing the funding to education because we do not have the money -- it is that simple. And I ask anybody who talks about [the fact that] we're reducing education, from the education side, to tell me where would you have me take it from? Would you have me take from the social services? Would you have me take it from law enforcement?" </blockquote> Penn State's appropriation is now equal to the amount it received in 1995, and Corbett wants to cut their budget further by taking away 50 percent of what it received in their 2011-12 appropriation. Penn State students can expect to <a href="" target="_hplink">pay 7.5 percent more</a> in tuition next year. It's the highest increase since 2002. The Morning Call <a href="" target="_hplink">reports</a>: <blockquote>This year, in the face of record budget cuts, state-owned universities such as Kutztown and East Stroudsburg ratcheted up tuition by 7.5 percent while Temple University's tuition spiked 10 percent.</blockquote> The University of Pennsylvania will increase tuition by <a href="" target="_hplink">3.9 percent</a>. Photo Credit: <a href="" target="_hplink">Pollinator</a>

  • South Carolina - 1 to 3.15 Percent

    The University of South Carolina is planning <a href="" target="_hplink">its smallest tuition hike</a> in recent years for in-state students, with a 3.15 percent increase. Out-of-state students will see a 4.9 percent increase, which is the largest tuition increase in the state this year. Despite the smaller increase this year, the price of tuition has more than doubled since 2002. The Charlotte <em>Observer</em> reports state support of USC Columbia has fallen to $90 million from $230 million since 2008. South Carolina State will have no change this year. Other South Carolina public colleges will increase tuition by 1 to 3 percent for next year. Coastal Carolina is actually reducing its tuition by 1 percent. Photo Credit:<a href="" target="_hplink"> Florencebballer</a>

  • South Dakota - 5.8 Percent

    The average tuition increase this year <a href="" target="_hplink">will be 5.8 percent</a>, the highest in the northern Midwestern Great Plains states. Photo Credit: <a href="" target="_hplink">USD's Facebook</a>

  • Tennessee - 3.4 to 8 Percent

    The University of Tennessee <a href="" target="_hplink">proposed tuition hikes</a> of 8 percent at the Knoxville campus, 6 percent at Chattanooga and Martin, and 4 percent at the Health Science Center. The Tennessee Board of Regents recommended tuition increases across the state. The AP <a href="" target="_hplink">reports</a> East Tennessee State University would get the highest increase at 7.2 percent. Austin Peay was the lowest at 3.4 percent. Photo Credit: <a href="" target="_hplink">Zereshk</a>

  • Texas - 2.5 to 3.8 Percent

    Students at the University of Texas could be <a href="" target="_hplink">facing tuition increases </a>of between 2.5 percent to 3.8 percent in the coming years. The Houston <em>Chronicle </em>reports "that would mean an increase from the current $4,896 per semester to $5,154 by fall 2013. Non-resident students would see tuition jump from $16,190 per semester to $17,377 by fall 2013." But the UT Board of Regents voted not to implement tuition hikes, leading a <a href="" target="_hplink">faceoff between UT president Bill Powers and the board</a>. The Texas Legislature deregulated tuition in 2003.

  • Virginia - 3.7 to 4.7 Percent

    The University of Virginia's Board of Visitors <a href="" target="_hplink">approved the smallest increase</a> in a decade for in-state tuition and mandatory fees with a 3.7 percent hike. The high from the past decade was in 2004 when they implemented a 19 percent increase. <a href="" target="_hplink">Virginia Tech increased tuition</a> by 3.9 percent. Virginia State University decided in a special meeting to lowered the increase in tuition and all mandatory fees from 6.6 percent to 4.7 percent for in state Virginia undergraduates. Gov. Bob McDonnell urged the state's universities to <a href="" target="_hplink">keep increases at or below the Consumer Price Index</a> (2.7 Percent) which is lower than the Higher Education Price Index.

  • Washington

    Washington State University is raising tuition by 16 percent for the <a href="" target="_hplink">second year in a row</a>. The University of Washington plans a 16 percent increase after raising tuition 20 percent last year. The AP reports Western, Eastern and Central Washington universities, and The Evergreen State College, all made two-year tuition decisions last summer after the Legislature decided to put tuition increases of up to 16 percent into the state's two-year budget.

  • West Virginia - 5 Percent

    West Virginia University students are looking at a 5 percent tuition bump. However, the total cost per semester for in-state residents will only be $3,045 <a href="" target="_hplink">after the increase</a>: <blockquote>The increases are slightly smaller at Potomac State College in Keyser and the WVU Institute of Technology in Montgomery. Both resident and nonresident undergraduates at Potomac State will pay $72 more per semester. At WVU Tech, residents will pay $107 more per semester, while nonresidents will pay $268 more. The board also approved a one-time fee of $63 per semester to replace all the individual course fees that students were once charged.</blockquote> Photo Credit: <a href="" target="_hplink">Swimmerguy269</a>

  • Wisconsin - 5.5 Percent

    If the Board of Regents approves a <a href="" target="_hplink">5.5 percent increase</a>, the University of Wisconsin-Madison tuition and fees may top $10,000 for in-state students, and UW-Milwaukee would be close behind. It would be the 6th consecutive year UW System President Kevin Reilly has recommended a 5.5 percent increase for all UW campuses: <blockquote>Higher tuition has helped offset less than a third of state funding cuts, according to UW System officials. Universities gained savings from state budget provisions that imposed higher costs on state employees for benefits. They also gained savings through flexibilitities from state rules regarding purchasing, contracts and other areas.</blockquote> Photo Credit: <a href="" target="_hplink">Vonbloompasha </a>