Saving Pell Grants in an Era of Cost-Cutting

In the context of the recent efforts to arrive at a federal budget, articles abound in the popular media and trade publications debating both the value of Pell Grants and their rising cost to the U.S. government.
Both pros and cons of the debate hold value. Pell Grants are what enable many of our low-income families to send their children to college and, when more and more jobs require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, the value of these grants cannot be underestimated. While some eligible students still do not apply for these grants (due to the still-existing hurdles of the FAFSA), many more students have sought these grants than ever before (from 6.2 million recipients in award year 2008-09 to an estimated 9.4 million in 2011-12).

And therein lies the rub. With increased utilization, up goes the price tag. It is estimated that the cost of the Pell program has more than doubled over the last five years.

Solutions to this situation are not in short supply either. Apart from those advocating complete elimination of Pell Grant support, officials have suggested everything from grant reductions to changed eligibility requirements.

Recently, a group of well-respected higher education experts proposed solutions in a requested letter to the College Board. While I laud some of the proffered solutions, there is one particular suggestion made by the group with which I strongly disagree, namely that Pell Grants should be awarded only to students enrolled in at least 15 credit hours per semester.

The current eligibility requirements permit students enrolled in 12 credits hours to be awarded a Pell Grant. The group’s rationale for increasing the credit-hour requirements is that “full-time” enrollment at most colleges is 15 credits. So, if we limit the Pell Grants to students enrolled “full-time” and graduating in four years (120 credit hours), we will reduce both the number of enrolled students and the amount paid to each student over the course of his/her undergraduate education.

The authors are not wrong in their conclusion: Restricting eligibility in the manner described will lower the cost of Pell Grants. But the proffered approach suggested fails to address and hence acknowledge the academic and psychosocial context within which Pell Grants are awarded.

Most Pell-eligible students, as pointed out with stunning clarity by Richard Kahlenberg in his book, Rewarding Strivers, will struggle to complete their undergraduate education in six years, let alone in four years. And, students not enrolled at elite institutions will struggle even more. Indeed, one of the best predictors of college success is a prospective student’s socioeconomic class.

For many colleges, while 15 credit hours is considered a full-load, a large percentage of students enroll in 12 credit hours a semester periodically over the course of their college career and are still considered full-time students—a point even recognized by the NCAA.

And why would students lower their credit hours? Lots of reasons and most are not trying to game the aid system.

For some first-generation students, enrolling in four courses for two or three semesters will foster success whereas handling five courses may create information overload, particularly in the first year or two of college. This is particularly true since many vulnerable students need added tutorial help and, importantly, they work part-time to help finance their education, including in Federal Work-Study jobs. Indeed, many institutions, Southern Vermont College included, counsel students to take four rather than five courses in certain semesters depending on their academic preparedness, their family home life in a given semester, and their need to concentrate on a particularly difficult course such as Anatomy or Physiology.

One point is clear: Even if a student can get 80% of a Pell Grant at 12 credit hours, as has been suggested, the loss of 20% of the grant is not insignificant. For many low-income students, every grant dollar matters and without these dollars and with the lack of parental access to credit at reasonable rates, these students will likely be unable to finance their undergraduate education.

Since when is getting through college a race where we only reward the fastest? I appreciate we do not want students taking a decade to complete their undergraduate education. But it seems to me that completing a degree in four and a half or five years is no sin, particularly when a slightly expanded time frame enables success.

Consider how we think about learning itself. It does not matter when you learn something—it matters that you learn it and the light bulb goes on for different students at different times. Children learn to read a different times but it should not matter, in the long run, whether one learns at age four or age eight.

The proffered suggestions by the College Board group are, it seems, geared to those Pell Grant recipients enrolled in America’s elite colleges, which, relatively speaking, do not enroll large numbers of Pell recipients. And for elite institutions, a four-year graduation is the norm. The experts who signed the letter to the College Board themselves hail from some of America’s best institutions of higher learning.

I also cannot forgo mentioning the proffered supportive cross-reference to “incentivizing” student success. To be sure, there are studies that link money with academic progress and achievement levels. But there are lots of variables that contribute to student success, including among others, attitude toward learning, supportive learning environments, mentor access, high school preparedness and rigor. Resting reduction of Pell Grant eligibility on one study about increasing credit requirements to ensure academic progression seems like an empirical reach to me.

I have no problem reflecting on how to curb the growing costs of Pell Grants to the U.S. government. I have no problem pondering how to get more students through college in a shorter time frame. What I object to is making full Pell Grants something that will, in practice, principally be available to the highest low-income performers at our more elite institutions, with the result that we will be ignoring the many low-income students enrolled at less elite institutions—for whom Pell Grants are the gateway to success.

It’s worth remembering that, as the story goes, the tortoise turned out to be wiser than the hare and did proudly cross the finish line.


Karen Gross is president of Southern Vermont College.


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