COVER STORY: Shut Out
AP Photo/South Bend Tribune, Robert Franklin
C O V E R S T O R Y
New Federal Rules Excluding CC Students from Pell Grant Program
By Paul Bradley
Call it the law of unintended consequences or the inevitable result of a dysfunctional decide-at-the-last-possible-moment Washington political system.
And with renewal of the Higher Education Act soon to go before Congress, concern is growing that more changes to Pell — including the possibility of boosting the minimum credits a student must carry to receive a Pell Grant and capping the number of remedial classes eligible for Pell aid — could exclude more community college students from the program. That would deny some of the most vulnerable students the chance to finish college and undermind the Obama administration’s college completion agenda.
Among the students already feeling the effects of the Pell Grant program changes enacted last year is Turner Gray, a 36-year-old freshman at Lower Manhattan Community College in New York. A single mother with two children, she in many ways exemplifies the kind of student who relies on Pell Grants to attend college. After being unemployed for two years, she enrolled in college this year intent on earning a business administration degree.
She’s been helped by several college-based aid programs and hoped for a speedy path to a credential so she can get back to work. But she was surprised to learn that Pell will not cover the summer courses she was planning to take.
“I am a parent of two children, and I have not been able to find a job after working steadily for ten years,” she said. “With all the obstacles in front of me, I can’t understand why I can’t go to school in the summer.”
The timing of the changes, implemented with no phase-in period, has caught students like Gray by surprise. Many students who were expecting a financial aid notification in the mail this school year instead got a rude surprise when they ripped open the envelope: a bill.
Excluding summer courses from the Pell Grant program was just one of the changes approved by Congress last June as it scrambled to plug a $1.3 billion gap in the Pell program, which has been growing for more than a decade as college enrollments have soared. The cost of the Pell Grant program doubled in cost to $36.5 billion in the four years ending in 2010, gobbling up an ever-growing share of discretionary funding of the U.S. Department of Education.
There were 19.4 million applicants for the grants last year, compared with 9.5 million a decade earlier. The changes enacted by Congress excluded about 100,000 students nationwide from the program.
At Montgomery County Community College in suburban Philadelphia, about 400 students, or about 10 percent of those who typically qualify for a Pell Grants, received either a lower award or no grant at all, said college President Karen A. Stout. Many of those students were enrolled in summer nursing courses specifically designed to leverage Pell grants and help students earn their degrees sooner.
“Not only have the changes hurt students, but they have hurt the overall goal of college completion,” she said.
The changes were necessitated when higher education leaders, working with their congressional representatives last year, insisted that the maximum Pell Grant of $5,500 remain untouched as budget-cutters looked for ways to trim rapidly growing costs, Stout said. That meant other areas were ripe for cutting. But few people foresaw the disproportionate impacts the cuts would have on community college students.
In addition to the summer school restriction, two other changes have been exacting an outsized cost on community college students.
First, Pell Grant eligibility was reduced from 18 semesters to 12 semesters. After those 12 semesters, students are cut off from additional Pell funding. Though difficult to precisely quantify, this provision hurts community college students because 65 percent of them have jobs and often attend college part time over several years.
The lifetime eligibility rules make no exception for students who need considerable remedial course work, the bulk of community college students. The Pell Grant clock starts ticking while they are taking developmental classes that won’t count toward a college degree. Students who languish in remedial classes can use up a significant portion of their Pell aid before earning a single college credit.
Neither do the lifetime eligibility rules make any provisions for students who change majors or who encounter difficulty transferring credits from a community college to a four-year school.
“I think the changes really reflect concerns about college-completion,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, an associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The attitude is ‘get with the program.’ What they don’t address is the fact that a lot of community college students arrive at school and don’t even know what a major is. It seems punitive.”
The other significant change means that Pell Grants are now fully funded only for students whose families have an annual income of $23,000 or less, down from the previous level of $32,000. The federal poverty line for a family of four is $22,500.
“These changes fall disproportionately on students who are at the margins financially,” Goldrick-Rab said. “Pell is important to students who have nothing else. A lot of students are at community colleges because their families can’t help them.”
Added Steven G. Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama: “If you’re not really destitute, you’re not going to get a Pell Grant.”
Katsinas recently completed a study that found that the changes enacted by Congress stripped Pell Grant eligibility from nearly 3,000 Mississippi students. The changes contributed to lower enrollments for the fall 2012 semester at 14 of the state’s 15 community colleges, the study found.
In a separate study of Alabama colleges, Katsinas found that they are heavily reliant on Pell Grants and that the recent changes are restricting access to college.
Katsinas argues that recent enrollment declines at Alabama colleges — even as the state strives to boost its graduation rates — are directly attributable to changes in the Pell Grant programs.
Among the findings of the Alabama report:
- A higher percentage of Alabama students are using Pell Grants than at any time in history. In the past four years, the number of Alabama college students using Pell has increased by 43,000.
- During the same time period, Pell funding at Alabama colleges grew by $300 million.
- The new Pell lifetime eligibility restrictions on Pell has meant that 4,731 students immediately lost Pell eligibility. Another 12,057 students, including 3,805 at community colleges, will likely lose eligibility during the next two semesters.
- The new restrictions have resulted in lower enrollment at nearly every Alabama community college.
The impact of changes in the Pell Grant program in Mississippi, Alabama and other southern states are especially noteworthy because few have strong statewide student aid programs, making them heavily reliant on Pell as they try to remake their economies and equip workers with new skills.
In a survey related to his study, Katsinas found that college officials in Alabama would be willing to accept a reduced maximum Pell award in return for eliminating the restrictions that are restricting access to their institutions. It’s an idea that is gaining currency as community college officials prepare to convene in Washington during the annual legislative summit of the Association of Community College Trustees.
“I don’t think the maximum award should be sacrosanct,” Montgomery County Community College’s Stout said. “It’s important, but it has to be weighed against the number of students who are being shut out of Pell. The students who are being shut out are the ones we were founded to serve.”
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