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Published: Tuesday, 1/6/2009

Behind those college grants

CLAIBORNE deBorda Pell was born to a life of privilege as the only child of an immensely wealthy Rhode Island couple, but his greatest legacy was to tens of millions of less fortunate Americans.

Mr. Pell, a Democrat who served six terms in the U.S. Senate and was regarded as his state's most formidable politician, died at 90 on New Year's Day.

Soon after his first election in 1960, Mr. Pell sponsored the preparation of a large statistical report that became the basis of the Basic Education Opportunity Grant, a federal program that provided financial aid for the needy to attend college. His admiring colleagues in Congress later changed the name of the program to match his own. They're known as Pell grants.

Mr. Pell, a Coast Guard veteran, often said he was motivated to help a broader range of students after seeing the impact of the GI Bill of Rights, which aided returning service members after World War II.

He also was the author of the National Foundation of the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, which paved the way for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowments for the Humanities. Stricken with Parkinson's disease, he retired from the Senate in 1997.

But his greatest impact was on generations of students who, because of Claiborne Pell, were able to attend schools they could not otherwise afford and improve their own lives through education. At his passing, we say thank you.

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