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By Paul Bradley  /  
2012 March 19 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Powered By Pell

C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y

Powered By Pell
Rural Community Colleges Benefiting from
Federal Pell Grant Program

By Paul Bradley

From the corridors of power in Washington to the halls of academe across the country, a powerful and familiar narrative has taken root when talk turns to the federal Pell Grant program. SEE RELATED ARTICLE: The Federal Pell Grant Program: A Primer 

Its chief beneficiaries, the meme goes, are urban colleges and universities and low-income students who are members of minority groups. And there is little doubt that students attending urban colleges benefit greatly from Pell, the largest need-based college grant program in the country.

But as the economic downtown that started in 2008 accelerated and affected all corners of the country, a new truth emerged: Pell Grants are now increasingly vital to the 3.3 million students — and especially female students — who attend the country’s 574, small, rural community colleges.

A new study which focused on community colleges in Kansas found that the benefits of Pell reach deep into America’s rural heartland, extending well beyond large urban colleges.

It’s an important finding as congressional budget-cutters look for ways to slash spending on education, and college officials scramble to bridge the red-state, blue-state divide and muster support against such cuts. The study shows that Pell has become a powerful tool for upward mobility in rural America, findings that were shared with elected officials at the recent legislative summit of the Association of Community College Trustees.

“The data shows that Pell is dramatically increasing the capacity to train America’s rural workforce,” said Steven G. Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama and a leading scholar on rural community colleges. “These findings are important. If you think Pell is an urban program, and you come from a rural area, maybe you don’t have to care about it very much. We are trying to show with hard data that Pell makes a difference in all kinds of states.”

The Kansas study was led by Garden City Community College, a small college located in the southwestern corner of Kansas. GCCC enrolls about 2,000 students, 1,000 of them full-time. The study was authored by Frank Mensel, senior fellow at the Alabama policy center; Deanna Mann, assistant to the president for grants and accreditation at Garden City Community College; and Ron Schwartz, a GCCC trustee. The data was analyzed by Katsinas, whose policy shop produced a separate study of the impact of Pell Grants on the country’s rural community colleges.

Taken together, the two studies show that the growth of rural community colleges, and the expansion of educational opportunity, is being fueled by the Pell Grant program.

The Kansas study found that:

  • The combination of rural community colleges and Pell Grant funding are now a critical source of higher education opportunity and lifelong learning in rural communities.

  • Nearly half of the college credit earned by students is funded, at least in part, by money from Pell Grants.

  • Pell Grants have emerged as a major source of college opportunity for American women.

The last finding is considered important, Mensel said, because his study is the first to track the flow of Pell Grants by gender across a statewide system of similar colleges. Of the 17 Kansas community colleges that took part in the study, all but one are classified as rural-serving colleges under the Carnegie classification system.

“Pell Grants are contributing strongly to the march of women to a still greater majority in undergraduate studies in the United States,” said Mensel, former vice-president for governmental affairs at the American Association of Community Colleges. “On average in the Kansas community colleges, women are outpacing men by roughly 20 percent in Pell Grant participation.”

Just how much Kansas community colleges and students rely on Pell can be found in some of the numbers the studies produced. Between fall 2008 and fall 2010, student head counts increased by 11 percent, to 77,280. At the same time, Pell Grants awards grew by 8,862, or 75 percent. Pell Grants dollars grew over the same period from $20.5 million to about $40.4 million. The number of women receiving Pell Grants spiked by 59 percent.

“As president of a rural serving community college, I believe it is imperative to understand the significance of the Pell Grants as our nation’s greatest portal to higher education,” said Herbert J. Swender, Garden City Community College president. “As an educator who has served 29 years at four different rural colleges, it is obvious to me that access for women, and the lifeblood for rural institutions, comes from America’s Pell Grants.”

Swender was among several presidents of rural community colleges who recently traveled to Washington to meet with congressional and White House staffers to urge that the Pell Grant program be retained and expanded. For their benefit, he repeated one of his favorite and meaningful statistics: that the Pell Grant program, since its creation in 1972, has lent college assistance to five times as many people as have benefited from the post World War II GI Bill.

“This is the kind of evidence we need to share,” he said. “This is real data. It speaks volumes, clearly showing that the Pell Grant widens access to both college degrees and workforce development.”

The Kansas data has broad implications for all rural community colleges, Katsinas said. Rural community colleges now comprise nearly 6 in 10 of all U.S. community colleges. Between 2002 and 2008, enrollment growth at rural community colleges accounted for 43 percent of all enrollment growth at community colleges. Enrollment at rural community colleges accounts for 33 percent of overall community college enrollment. But 39 percent of all Pell Grants go to students at rural community colleges.

Because rural community colleges are often located in remote areas, the schools represent the sole route to higher education for thousands of students, said Linda Serra Hagedorn, professor and director of the Research Institute for Studies in Higher Education (RISE) at Iowa State University.

“For many low-income students, the only only opportunity to go to college is the community college,” she said. “The Pell Grant program is very much part of the community college experience in rural areas.”

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Q:  How important are federal Pell Grants to your college?
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