Year-round Pell Grants could make a comeback under a fiscal-2017 spending bill that Senate appropriators will take up on Thursday.
The bipartisan bill, which made it through a subcommittee on Tuesday, would allow students once more to receive a second scheduled Pell Grant in an award year, five years after Congress ended a short-lived experiment in year-round Pells, citing higher-than-expected costs.
Restoring year-round Pell Grants would provide an estimated one million students with an additional $1,650, on average, during the 2017-18 academic year. In a statement, Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who is chairman of the education committee, said such a revival “would be the most important news in higher education so far this year.”
But the bill would also dip into a surplus in the Pell Grant program to pay for other programs — a $1.2-billion shift that Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin, said would set a “dangerous precedent.” Two Democrats in the House of Representatives, Bobby Scott of Virginia and Ruben Hinojosa of Texas, agreed, writing in a statement that the bill “balances other needs on the backs of low-income college students without doing anything to put additional dollars in their pockets each semester.”
The spending bill would increase the maximum Pell Grant by $120, to $5,935, as scheduled, while providing no increase for the TRIO and Gear Up college-prep programs, Federal Work Study, or Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants. The National Institutes of Health would get an additional $2 billion.
Congress created year-round Pell Grants (also known as summer Pell Grants) in 2009, as part of an effort to encourage students to study year-round and finish their degrees faster. In 2010 some 800,000 students received the second grants. But the expansion cost five to nine times as much as federal budgeters had originally estimated, and college financial-aid officials complained that it was complicated to administer. In 2011, Congress killed the year-round grants, saying it had done so to close a shortfall in the program and to preserve the maximum award.
Reviving the year-round program has been a top priority of community colleges and for-profit institutions, which saw summer enrollment increase during the two years it was in effect. For-profit colleges received a third of the summer Pell awards during that time, prompting concerns from some advocates that they were exploiting the program.
In March the Congressional Budget Office reported that the Pell program was operating with a $7.8-billion surplus, a result of lower-than-projected enrollment and eligibility cuts. Advocates for students and borrowers had urged the Education Department to use some of that money to increase the maximum award, but appropriators chose not to.
The spending bill is expected to pass the Senate. House appropriators haven’t released their version of the bill yet, but the speaker of the House, Rep. Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, signaled support for restoring year-round Pell Grants in an antipoverty plan he released on Tuesday.
“Pell Grants must be more flexible to help meet the needs of today’s students,” the plan says. “By allowing Pell Grants to be used year-round, students will be able to accelerate their coursework, thereby completing their program more quickly and at a lower cost and with less student-loan debt.”