Pell reforms under discussion

Reforming Pell Grants was the topic of a House subcommittee hearing last week. Witnesses discussed tightening eligibility, disbursing checks every few weeks, linking checks to attendance and requiring financial aid counseling, among other ideas. Congress is preparing to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which sets rules for student aid, notes Community College Daily.

 Members of the House Higher Education and Workforce Training Subcommittee—as well as the four witnesses from the higher education sector—agreed that the Pell program, which has swelled to about $30 billion a year, needs some adjusting to curtail costs and to ensure that students who need financial assistance the most get it—and that they succeed in college. But they differed on how to do it.

“There is concern among members of the higher education community and of my colleagues in Congress that Pell has strayed too far from its original intent,” said subcommittee chair Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), who noted that the program serves more than 9 million students.

Grants should be targeted at low-income students, said Jenna Ashley Robinson, outreach director at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Too many middle-income students are eligible for aid now, she said

Pell has helped broaden access to college, said Michael Dannenberg of the Education Trust. “The percentage of low-income students going to college today is twice what it was 40 years ago when the Pell Grant program began,” he said. “We’ve cut the gap between low-income and upper-income students’ college access rates by 40 percent.” More than 90 percent of Pell recipients come from families with incomes of less than $50,000, according to Dannenberg.

The discussions at the hearing touched on a number of areas—from providing yearround Pell Grants in order to accommodate students who take college courses during winter and summer breaks, to whether student aid contributes to escalating college costs. But a good part of it focused on ensuring that students who received grants were attending classes. Robinson noted that Central Piedmont Community College in North Carolina does not disburse grant money to students if they haven’t attended class during the first 10 percent of the semester, and the college tracks students’ academic progress.

Richard Heath, director of student financial services at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland, outlined strategies to prevent fraud and abuse. These include: monitoring out-of-state addresses and multiple applications from the same address, working with faculty to provide accurate attendance records, requiring students to meet with an advisor during the first three weeks of school to receive their Pell check and using a federal database to check on student aid applicants.

Ex-boyfriend kills two at Kentucky college

20-year-old student and her uncle were shot to death in the parking lot of Hazard Community and Technical College in Kentucky last night. The uncle’s 12-year-old daughter was wounded. The student’s ex-boyfriend, Dalton Stidham, 21, has been charged with killing Caitlin Cornett and her uncle, Jackie Cornett, 53, and wounding the 12-year-old, who is in critical condition.

Cornett and Stidham had a child together, said police, who are investigating what led up to the shooting.

Community colleges must find ways to help studehts cope with domestic violence, such as “stalking, threats, physical, emotional and psychological abuse,” writes Carole Berotte Joseph, president of Bronx Community College, in Community College Times.

Depression sets in. Students who haven’t yet developed the maturity to handle the drama and turmoil may succumb to substance abuse. Attendance declines. Grades suffer. They drop out.

Even worse can happen, writes Joseph. Edith Rojas was studying to be a medical office assistant at BCC before she was stabbed to death on New Year’s Eve. The chief suspect is an ex-boyfriend. Reportedly, she’d broken up with him because he was “interfering” with her studies.

‘Pell runners’ abuse grants

Pell Grants don’t always go for college tuition, writes Nancy Marshall Genzer on the Hechinger Report. (Listen to the story on Marketplace.) The maximum grant of $5,500 is more than tuition at low-cost colleges; students get the rest back a few weeks into the term to spend on books and living expenses. They don’t have to account for how they spend the money. A single mother might pay the babysitter so she can get to night classes; a recipient living with parents might buy a car, clothing or Christmas gifts.

While most Pell recipients try to pass their classes, those at low-cost colleges have an incentive to enroll, cash the refund check and then stop attending. Teachers say there’s no trouble parking on campus once the checks go out.

They’ll lose eligibility for aid after two or three semesters, but they can move on to another college and try again, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org. Colleges should track these “Pell runners”  and turn them into the U.S. Education Department, he says.

Kantrowitz: If you see a student transferring from one college to another to another within a small geographic area, that may be a sign that they’re a Pell runner.

At community colleges in California’s Central Valley, 25 percent of Pell Grant recipients each semester fail their classes or earn such low grades that they lose aid eligibility, a Fresno Bee investigation found. Financial aid administrators suspect some are not serious students, but nobody can say how many are enrolling for the refund check.

Louisiana’s technical colleges charge very low tuition, raising the value of the refund check.  An estimated 20 percent of students collect Pell Grants, then fail all their classes, often because they stop attending, says Joe May, president of the college system. The legislature is considering a bill that would raise tuition to discourage aid abuse.

Of course, all the honest, hard-working students would pay more for classes.

Harkin hits for-profit education

Senate Education Committee Chair Tom Harkin “lashed out at the for-profit education sector” in a hearing Wednesday, reports Reuters.

Chairman Tom Harkin pointed to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released Tuesday that found staff at the controversial colleges urged potential students to fudge their income on loan forms and give misleading information about costs.

Abuses are “systemic to the for-profit industry,” Harkin said.

The ranking Republican, Sen. Mike Enzi, said, “In focusing only on for-profits, we are not being objective, and we are ignoring the bigger picture of what is happening across all of higher education.”

The GAO investigated for-profit colleges that receive 89 percent of revenue from federal aid, including University of Phoenix in Arizona, Everest College in Arizona, Kaplan College in California and Argosy University in Illinois.

The Career College Association, a trade group for the for-profit sector, vowed “zero tolerance for bad behavior” and promised to improve training and start a “mystery shopper” program.