Saving Financial Aid for ‘Swirling’ Students

Recently Congress took action to contain the rising costs of the Pell Grant program by cutting the number of semesters students can receive the grant from 18 to 12. Thus students are given the equivalent of six years, maximum, to finish college while receiving this important form of financial support. The change affects only a small fraction of undergraduates (some 100,000) and was perhaps preferable to other options that were considered (for example, limiting full-time eligibility to students taking 15 credits per term, which would have hurt students who could not handle the load).

But while intended to create savings and provide students with incentives to complete degrees faster, the new rules have an unintended consequence: compromising the graduation chances of students disadvantaged at least as much by insufficient resources at the institutions they attend as by factors under their own control. That hits students who rely on financially strapped public institutions especially hard.

The policy’s victims are “swirling” students—those who enroll for a term or so, drop out, then reappear a semester or even a year or two later. They often change institutions, yet in many respects they are the ultimate persisters—returning to college time and again. In research conducted over the last decade, one of us has shown that swirlers are most often men from less-educated families, frequently African-Americans, with less-than-stellar high-school preparation. They want to pursue a college degree but struggle to balance work and school, and often earn mediocre college grades. Some attend community colleges, but others transfer among two- and four-year institutions. Indeed, the research cited has shown that half of all undergraduates who begin at four-year institutions go on to attend at least one other college, and more than one-third take some time off from college after they first enroll.

Swirlers have been unfairly criticized for “shopping” their way through college. After all, many college administrators and state policy makers prefer to think that the market is functioning well, and that students and families are able to make optimal choices and pursue traditional paths to higher education. But while some students may, indeed, be unfocused or simply choosy, many others are shuttled or pushed through the system by constraints that include the dividing lines of race and social class. Those constraints merit policy attention.

The other inconvenient truth for well-meaning policy makers is that swirling is largely the provenance of students attending colleges that lack adequate resources, which drives up time-to-degree. Research by John Bound, Michael Lovenheim, and Sarah Turner for the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that the most powerful explanation for the lengthening time it takes students to graduate in the United States lies in reductions in per-student resources at less-selective public universities and community colleges. That is particularly true, the authors emphasize, for the time it takes men to graduate.

At the institutions the researchers describe, students often get less financial aid, as well as less help from advisers and other forms of crucial academic support. Moreover, other colleges stigmatize their institutions; when students do transfer, they are apt to face significant hurdles. They may lose credits, for example, or struggle to quickly find footholds in college life when they re-enroll.  These problems are at least as attributable to the institutions they attend (and the states where they live) as to their own actions. In other words, the forces that dictate time-to-degree for swirling students—and many others—may not lie entirely, or even mostly, under their control.

With the changes in the Pell Grant program, swirlers lost their Pell Grants after 12 semesters—and all other forms of financial aid tied to Pell money. That includes most state grant programs and many private scholarships as well.  In fact, the rule was applied retroactively, cutting off students no matter how close they were to graduation. Since most of those students have little discretionary income and attend colleges with minimal or no institutional aid, many who want to continue college must now work even longer hours, further delaying degree completion. But the vast majority won’t succeed. Instead, they will simply drop out, this time forever.

There is bipartisan support for ensuring that the Pell Grant program operates in a cost-effective manner. This rule change saved about $625-million in the 2012 fiscal year, and will save up to $7-billion over the next 10 years. But the program shouldn’t be cheap at any cost. We need to assess the merits of this policy—and to alleviate the harm caused in the meantime.

As a first step, the federal government should get the information needed to make a data-driven decision. For example, the U.S. Department of Education could provide a waiver to some states or colleges to experiment with a return to the 18-semester-eligibility rule. Phase in this opportunity to create control groups for comparison purposes, and assess outcomes relative to costs.

In the meantime, reset the clock for students who have been out of college for more than several years, as many older credits are unlikely to count toward the current degree program. In addition, relax the rules for students who were enrolled in community colleges during part of their eligibility period, to level the playing field so that they won’t be penalized for starting at a two-year college. For example, count each term at a community college as one-half a semester of eligibility, for up to two additional terms of eligibility.

In the long run, the answer may lie in driving down time-to-degree, as one of us advocates—not by cutting off students, but by cutting off states that fail to provide sufficient per-student resources at their comprehensive public universities and community colleges. In exchange for enrolling students with assistance from federal student-aid programs, all institutions in a state (including community colleges, regional publics, flagships, privates, and for-profits) could work collaboratively to ensure the success of all, rather than competing over scarce resources.

Allowing students extended time to get a degree if they need it may postpone the economic payoff for them and society, but it does not render the public or private investment meaningless. The Pell Grant program was intended to improve the life chances of the most vulnerable members of our society. Remembering that goal is essential to refocusing and refining all federal financial-aid programs.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is an associate professor of educational-policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Robert J. Kelchen is a doctoral candidate in the university’s department of educational-policy studies.

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