Lois Dickson Rice Posthumously Honored for Role in Developing the Federal Pell Grant Program

February 25, 2022

Lois Dickson Rice, a former executive with the College Board, who teamed with Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI) to revolutionize federal student aid programs, was posthumously awarded NAICU’s 2022 Advocacy Award for Independent Higher Education during a special dinner honoring the 50 year legacy of the Pell Grant program during the Association’s 2022 Annual Meeting and Advocacy Day.
After having helped create the Pell Grant, Rice set her mind and energy toward lobbying Congress to pass the legislation that would create the program.  The passage of the Pell Grant into law was neither easy nor expected.  It was through Rice’s tenacity, and that of the bill’s advocates and sponsors, that the program was approved and funded.  Her work rightly earned her the moniker, “Mother of the Pell Grant,” to complement Senator Pell’s recognition as the program’s founding father.
“As we celebrate the 50 year legacy of the Pell Grant program and the impact it has had on more than 80 million students, it is important to remember the pioneers who made this program possible for students,” said NAICU President Barbara K. Mistick, D.M.  “Lois Dickson Rice’s advocacy for the notion that federal funds should follow the student is a proven idea today that empowers millions of low-income and first generation students every year.”
The NAICU Advocacy Award was established to recognize individuals who have championed the cause of independent higher education. The recipient of this award has provided leadership, established resources, or enacted policy at the state or national level that recognized the role of independent colleges and universities in serving public purposes. No single contribution makes one eligible to receive the award, it recognizes a lifetime of service, initiative, and determination.
Rice’s daughter, Ambassador Susan Rice, accepted the award on behalf of the family.
“My brother John and I are deeply gratified to accept this award on behalf of our late mother, Lois Dickson Rice,” Ambassador Rice said. “I’m fortunate to have played many roles over the course of my life and career, but one of the titles of which I will always be proudest is to be the daughter of “the Mother of the Pell Grant.”
Ambassador Rice continued: “Passing Pell took tenacity. It took patience. It took passionate advocates—from students to community college presidents, from an aristocratic Rhode Island Senator to a dogged Black female College Board executive—to achieve. When you consider how many Pell recipients have gone on to shape so many other lives—as doctors, lawyers, and artists, as engineers and public servants—as college presidents—the true impact of Pell is incalculable.”  (Complete prepared remarks)
In addition to Ambassador Rice, two recipients of Pell Grants, Suzanne M. Rivera, Ph.D., president of Macalester College (MN), and Michelle Vasquez, a student at Trinity Washington University (DC), also spoke at the dinner.
Rivera described arriving at Brown University (RI) with a suitcase given to her as a high school graduation gift, a trunk and a black garbage bag containing bedding from home.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect of college life,” she said.  “I imagined it would be academically rigorous and I thought there would be parties. But I didn’t know how unfamiliar it would feel to me because I didn’t understand the cultural landscape of the academy– something we now sometimes call “the hidden curriculum of higher education.”
She continued: “Despite the challenges of adjusting to life at an elite college, I knew it was a privilege to be there.  I went to lectures given by world leaders, artists, and thinkers whose names I recognized only from newspapers and books.  I joined student organizations and clubs.  I got a summer research internship.  I began to think of myself as a scholar.  None of this would have been possible without my Pell Grant, and for that I am deeply grateful.”
Rivera’s college experience was transformative for her and her family.
“I know that the liberal arts education I received in college fundamentally changed me,” she said. “It opened my mind and my heart to new experiences.  It introduced me to people I never would have met (including my spouse, with whom I co-founded a club for students on financial aid).  It encouraged me to take intellectual risks.  Above all, it gave me the tools to forge a career focused on advancing opportunities for other talented and deserving students, who– by happenstance of birth– are unable to afford college tuition.
Moreover, the Pell Grant program had a profound impact on her family as two of her younger siblings attended private colleges with the support of Pell Grants – a sister went to Sarah Lawrence College (NY) and a brother went to Roger Williams University (RI).  Eventually, her single mother enrolled in college – at age 42– with a Pell Grant and completed her degree at Brandeis University (MA) while working two jobs and parenting a younger brother who is intellectually disabled.  (Complete prepared remarks)
A native of Washington, DC, Vasquez talked about her college pathway from a high school sophomore unware of college to graduating college senior.
“I raised the idea of college with my family, and I am thankful to have received their full support and continuous prayers for me until this day,” she said.  “However, unresolved was how I would pay for college.  Senior year, I began to apply to colleges, and I also applied to some scholarships. Actually, a lot of scholarships. In fact, a little over 130 scholarships – I was very motivated!”
Vasquez said she was inspired by the idea that she would be the first in “my entire Latino family to go to college” and “I would be the main role model for my younger brother who would be next in this journey.”
“My Pell Grants have been instrumental to my attendance at Trinity since 2019,” Vasquez said.  “And now I am honored to share that because of the Pell Grant support and my financial aid package at Trinity, I will be graduating as Student Government Council President, as an honors student, and with a secured position to work as a consultant at Accenture upon graduation.”
She continued:  “Had it not been for my Federal Pell Grants, my chances of going to college would have deteriorated significantly. Because of my Pell grants, I have unlimited options for choosing a fulfilling career path and paving a more dignified and safer future for my immigrant, hard-working family that would have been unimaginable to that sophomore high school Michelle.”  (Complete prepared remarks)
Lois Dickson Rice Background
Fifty years ago, while working at what is now the College Board, Rice helped create the Pell Grant, working directly with the program’s namesake, Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI).  Rice and Sen. Pell were of the mind that a simpler and more empowering method for low-income students would be to provide direct aid to them based on income and not merit.  The students would then be able to use the aid at the institution that best fit their individual needs.  As Rice recalled in an interview many years later, “we were not anti-institution, we were just pro-student.”
Rice broke away from the higher education pack.  At the time, the prevailing wisdom was that federal student aid funding should go to institutions to determine which students should get aid.  Rather than adhering to the status quo, Rice advocated for the novel concept that federal support in higher education should be put in the hands of students, who in turn would use it at the college of their choice. 
Fifty years later, the Pell Grant program has made college possible for millions of Americans and enjoys broad bipartisan support.  Recent polling suggests that 60% of Americans are familiar with the program, and 87% support the Pell Grant.  Forty-two percent have either received a Pell Grant themselves or have a member of their immediate family who received a Pell Grant.  This is an extraordinary degree of recognition for any federal program.
Rice was born to immigrants from Jamaica who had big dreams for their children’s education, despite their own work as a janitor and maid.  Her future success was foreshadowed early on as student council president, valedictorian and the student voted “Most Likely to Succeed” at Portland (Maine) High School.  She went on to attend Radcliffe College, where she was elected student body president and graduated in 1954. 
Rice’s distinguished professional career included rising through the ranks to become an executive at the College Entrance Examination Board (now the College Board). After a lengthy career there she became a higher education scholar at the Brookings Institution, where she published numerous works on federal higher education policies, directed the Think Tank Consortium, and led an effort to promote racial diversity at public policy organizations.  Having served on numerus well-known boards, both corporate and non-profit, Rice was a pioneer for many women and minorities seeking similar leadership positions in America. 

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