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Pell changes hit community colleges

Last year’s changes to Pell Grants are “taking a heavy toll on community colleges and their students, depressing enrollments and squeezing the pocketbooks of thousands of students, if not pushing them out of the classroom altogether,” writes Paul Bradley on Community College Week.

Some propose requiring Pell recipients to earn more credits and capping remedial courses, making it harder for students to complete a certificate or degree.

Turner Gray, a 36-year-old freshman at Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York, is a single mother with two children who’s been unemployed for two years. She hopes to earn a business administration degree. But it will take longer because Pell no longer covers summer courses.

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, 10 percent of Pell recipients received less money or no grant at all, estimated college President Karen A. Stout. Many were enrolled in summer nursing courses designed to 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.

Under new eligibility limits, students can receive Pell aid for 12 semesters, down from 18. “The Pell Grant clock starts ticking while they are taking developmental classes that won’t count toward a college degree,” writes Bradley.

The change also could hurt students who have trouble transferring credits from a community college to a four-year college or university

To qualify for the maximum grant, students must come from families with an annual income of $23,000 or less, down from the previous level of $32,000.

The Pell changes resulted in lower enrollment at nearly all Mississippi and Alabama community colleges, concluded Steven G. Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama. He projected larger enrollment declines when eligibility limits kick in.