End of Year-Round Pell Grants Could Lead Many Nontraditional Students to Drop Out

April 14, 2011

The likely elimination of the year-round Pell Grant program has left thousands of students who had hoped to receive a second grant this year in limbo. Advocates worry that without the additional aid, many low-income, nontraditional students will make slower progress toward their degrees, or they could be forced to drop out of college.

Under the federal budget deal, students would no longer be able to take out a second Pell Grant to pay for classes starting July 1. Eliminating that option would save the federal government $8-billion through the remainder of the current fiscal year and in 2012, and would save about $49-billion over the next decade. Those savings would help close the Pell program's $20-billion shortfall without cutting the maximum grant award, which is currently $5,550.

Last year, the year-round provision allowed more than 800,000 Pell recipients to take out a second grant to pay for courses between academic semesters, usually during the summer. Advocates say it has become an important resource for students who are financially independent or over age 24, many of whom take summer and intersession courses in the hopes of graduating and entering the work force, or advancing into better-paying jobs, more quickly.

The changes could harm students at for-profit colleges the most. According to the Education Department, 32 percent of the funds for second Pell Grants go to students at for-profit institutions, making them the largest group of recipients, slightly ahead of students at four-year public institutions.

For-profit colleges also have far fewer students than four-year institutions, suggesting that their students take out second grants at an even greater rate.

Those students want to earn their degrees as quickly as possible so they can return to the work force, says Harris Miller, president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, which represents more than 1,600 for-profit colleges.

"They don't have the luxury of backpacking through Europe in the summer or getting an internship with the government," Mr. Miller says. "They've already got a job. They've already got a family to support."

The Education Department has argued that the year-round program has been ineffective since it went into effect in 2009, increasing summer enrollment by just 1 percent over all.

But a report released this week by the Council for the Study of Community Colleges showed that expanded Pell benefits, including summer grants that made courses more affordable, helped boost enrollment at 205 surveyed community colleges by 15 percent during the past two years.

The change affects nontraditional students at four-year, nonprofit colleges as well. At the University of Maine, commuter and nontraditional students make up around 17 percent of the undergraduate population, and many of those students rely on Pell Grants to pay for summer courses, says Barbara Smith, a staff associate for that group.

Nontraditional students are often "very focused on their academic work and want to move rapidly toward a degree so they can graduate and move into a career," Ms. Smith says.

In an interview with The Chronicle last month, Charles B. Reed, chancellor of the 23-campus California State University system, said he was concerned about the effect that cuts to Pell benefits would have on his students. More than 120,000 Cal State students—about 30 percent—received Pell Grants last year. About 13,000 of those students received a second grant, according to officials, who say the majority of those grants were used for summer classes.

Preserving the maximum Pell Grant award is still the No. 1 priority of most higher-education advocates, including Kai Drekmeier, president of InsideTrack, a company that advises students on admissions, finance, and academics. If it's an either-or proposition, Mr. Drekmeier says, he would rather see Congress eliminate the year-round program than lower the maximum award.

But getting rid of the program is counterproductive to President Obama's effort to boost the nation's college-completion rates by 2020, he believes.

"To increase the number of college graduates in the U.S., we need to be focused on supporting adult students," Mr. Drekmeier says. "When you add financial burdens, it can really make it insurmountable for some."