Black History: The African American Woman Behind Pell Grants

They’ve been called “the cornerstone of African American higher education.” Indeed, according to a 2011 report by Mark Kantrowitz, a nationally recognized expert on student financial aid, scholarships, and student loans, black students receive nearly half (46.3%) of all Pell Grants.

Named for Sen. Claiborne Pell, a Democrat from Rhode Island, who was the grant program’s chief sponsor, Pell Grants were developed and promoted by a daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Lois Dickson Rice.


Lois Dickson Rice


It wasn’t until I’d read Rice’s obituary in the New York Times–she died in January at the age of 83–that I learned about her extraordinary achievements.

According to the Times, when she died, Pell’s grandson Clay Pell IV, a former deputy assistant secretary of the Education Department, said in a statement, “This program was not inevitable, and it would not have come into existence without her, nor survived in the decades since without her passionate advocacy.” Rice was truly, I thought, another one of black history’s hidden figures.

An accomplished businesswoman at a time when such achievement was rare for either black people or women, Rice was a director on several boards of important companies, including Firestone and McGraw-Hill. She was a senior vice president of Control Data Corp. and joined the College Board in 1959.

It was at the College Board that Rice promoted and helped to develop the Pell Grant program, which has helped countless low-income students of all races to attend college.

Rice deserves an honored place in the pantheon of black American historical figures; not only for her personal successes but also for the way she helped to pave the way for others.