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.
At a growing number of community college campuses, Single Stop USA counselors help low-income students access government services and benefits so they can stay in school, reports Businessweek.
On the morning of Turner Gray’s English 201 final at the Borough of Manhattan Community College last spring, a city marshal evicted her and her two kids from their Bronx apartment. She’d fallen behind on rent after the city cut off her welfare because it mistakenly thought she wasn’t working. Money troubles had forced Gray to quit school once before. This time she had somewhere to turn for help. Gray went to her school’s Single Stop USA office, where a worker lined up emergency funds from BMCC and, after days of phone calls and paperwork, helped sort out the misunderstanding with the city. “I was back in my apartment in a week and a half,” Gray says.
On average, Single Stop clients access at least $5,400 in services and benefits that would otherwise go unclaimed, estimates McKinsey. The program now has offices at 17 community colleges in seven states.
“You are doubling the Pell Grant,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who’s studying the program. “That’s real money.”
. . .Goldrick-Rab found that Single Stop’s New York programs are on track to reduce dropout rates by 20 percent to 30 percent. That would be “quite a sizable and meaningful” effect if the results hold up over the long term, Goldrick-Rab says. “Research shows it’s really hard to move the dial for this population.”
Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami Dade College calls Single Stop “the most effective and efficient program that we’ve ever had.”
First Generation Student, a new web site, provides sensible advice for students who will be the first in their families to go to college. Jaimie Krause writes about developing academic resiliency. In another post, Mark Kantrowitz offers financial aid tips, starting with finding a mentor.
It’s also important to connect with other students on sites such as First Generation Student and I’m First, writes Kantrowitz. For example, Garret Juliano, who’s studying business and accounting at Western Piedmont Community College in North Carolina, can serve as a role model.
However, Kantrowitz warns first-generation students to start at a four-year college or university if their goal is a bachelor’s degree.
A community college program is an inexpensive way to obtain a certificate or an associate degree. However, if your goal is to obtain a bachelor’s degree, taking a detour through a community college to save money may mean that you never reach your destination. Half of first-generation students who begin their higher education at a four-year college intending to obtain a bachelor’s degree earn that degree within six years of enrollment, compared with a quarter of those who start their studies at a community college.
Parents who aren’t college educated have trouble understanding how much college will cost, write Susan Dynarski Judith Scott-Clayton in The Future of Children.
Calculating the net price of college for a given family requires understanding their finances as well as the rules of the Pell Grant, student loans, the tuition tax credits, state grant programs, and aid offered by individual colleges.
Students “are quite poor at estimating net prices,” they write. Some don’t apply for financial aid because they don’t realize they’re eligible.
Tracking students through college and into the workforce is an idea whose time has come back, reports Inside Higher Ed. The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act revives a controversial idea opposed by privacy advocates and adds a federal “unit record” database administered by the Education Department.
Colleges would make information public about students’ salaries by major and program; graduation and remediation rates; success rates for students who receive a Pell Grant or veterans’ benefits; and other benchmarks not currently collected in such detail.
. . . A unit record database has long been the holy grail for many policy makers, who argue that collecting data at the federal level is the only way to get an accurate view of postsecondary education. But privacy advocates, private colleges and Congressional Republicans, all of whom oppose the creation of such a database, teamed up in opposition the last time the idea was proposed, by the Bush administration in 2005. Then, the opponents succeeded; the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act included a provision specifically forbidding the creation of a federal unit record data system.
Nearly every advocacy group, think tank, committee and panel has called for a federal unit record system, reports Inside Higher Ed. States are developing databases to track their own students, but the federal government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System still ignores part-time students and counts many transfers as dropouts. As more young people “swirl” from one campus to another and yet another, IPEDS data is increasingly inadequate for policymakers.
Privacy is a phony issue, writes Reihan Salam on National Review. It’s easy to make the data anonymous. Students and their parents really do have a right to know the odds of success before they write the first tuition check, writes Salam. Reliable data on student outcomes would threaten colleges and universities that offer a substandard education and leave students in debt and without marketable skills.
Many Pell Grant recipients aren’t prepared for college and never complete a degree, writes Jane Shaw of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Instead of denying Pell aid to remedial students, she proposes requiring evidence of readiness, such as SAT scores of at least 850 (verbal and math) and a high school GPA of at least 2.5 (between a C and a B).
“Not only would this save taxpayer money, it would provide a positive incentive for students to do better in school,” write researchers Jenna Ashley Robinson and Duke Cheston. “Students with very low high school academic performance are unlikely to graduate from college regardless of financial aid.”
According to the College Board, in order to have a 65 percent chance of getting a B- average in college, students should achieve about 1030 on the math and verbal SATs and earn a B average in high school (taking courses of at least “average” rigor). Using this benchmark, only 32 percent of students taking the SATs in 2009 were fully college-ready! On the other hand, to have a chance at a C average in college, they can get by with a 730 score on math and verbal, says the College Board.
But even getting a C average would be a struggle for these students, and the possibility of failure or dropping is out is all too likely.
Universities may already be designating remedial courses as college-level courses, even without the incentive of qualifying students for federal aid.
Pell Grant recipients don’t get a tuition break at many public and private universities, according to Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation. Instead, universities compete for “the ’best and brightest’ students—and the wealthiest,” he writes in Undermining Pell: How Colleges Compete for Wealthy Students and Leave Low-Income Ones Behind.
Pell recipients are forced to take on more debt and work more hours, reducing their odds of completing a degree, Burd writes. Nearly two-thirds of private colleges and universities ask students from families making $30,000 or less to pay more than $15,000 a year for college.
Pell Grants should go only to college-ready students, proposes Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation on Bloomberg View.
“A huge proportion” of the $40 billion annual federal investment in college aid is going to unprepared students, he asserts.
About two-thirds of low-income community-college students — and one-third of poor students at four-year colleges — need remedial (aka “developmental”) education, according to Complete College America, a nonprofit group. But it’s not working: Less than 10 percent of students who start in remedial education graduate from community college within three years, and just 35 percent of remedial students earn a four-year degree within six years.
Currently, Pell recipients in a “program of study” — they say they’re seeking a credential — can take remedial courses for one year before losing benefits. Petrilli suggests cutting off Pell aid for remedial students.
Ambitious, low-income high-school students would know that if they want to attend college at public expense (probably their only option), they would first need to become “college-ready.” This would provide a clear sign and incentives for them to work hard, take college-prep classes and raise their reading and math skills to the appropriate level.
Many low-income students wouldn’t go to college without Pell support for remedial courses, Petrilli concedes. That “cuts against the American tradition of open access, as well as second and third chances.”
But it’s not clear unprepared students benefit by enrolling in college remedial courses, he writes. Most drop out long before they complete a degree or certificate. (Most drop out before they take a single college-level class.) “Many would be more successful in job-training programs that don’t require college-level work (or would be better off simply gaining skills on the job).”
Eliminating remedial Pell would free up money to boost the maximum grant for needy, college-ready students.
Colleges could respond by giving credit for courses that used to be considered “remedial,” Petrilli writes.
Indeed they could. Placing poorly prepared students in credit-bearing courses, with extra help to learn basic skills, already is a trend due to the high failure rates in traditional remedial ed.
Remedial education costs millions of dollars a year with very poor results, said Stan Jones of Complete College America at the Education Writers Association conference last week at Stanford. “We pride ourselves on access, but access to what? Most never access a true college course.”
Of half a million new community college students in remedial education every year, “maybe 20 percent” will move on to college-level courses, said Carnegie’s Alicia Grunow. “We’re killing the aspirations of hundreds of thousands of students every year.”
With a budget deficit made worse by student abuse of Pell Grants, Henry Ford Community College (Michigan) will raise tuition by 7 percent, reports the Press and Guide. The college will have to pay back $9.5 million in federal dollars — about 20 percent of tuition revenue — because many Pell recipients dropped out or failed all their classes after collecting up to $5,550 in student aid.
Collecting from “Pell runners” — students who stop attending once they get their grant money — rarely is successful, President Gail Mee said after the board meeting.
Trustee Aimee Schoelles asked if the college could see if the students have unpaid tuition bills from other colleges — a sign they are milking the system at one school and then moving to the next.
Mee said a federal registry tracks students who misuse their loans, but the data is too old to be useful.
Schoelles also suggested looking at class data to see where students drop or never attend and then overenrolling those courses so when students withdraw or never show the class is still closer to full.
Looking only at first-time, degree-seeking students, HFCC has the lowest graduation rate — 9 percent — of Michigan’s 18 community colleges; a third of students transfer before earning a degree.
Recent graduates with a technical or vocational associate degree average higher earnings than four-year graduates in three states analyzed by CollegeMeasures. In Virginia, the average technical associate degree graduate earned $49,000 a year between 2006 and 2010.
Community college degrees “are worth a lot more than I expected and that I think other people expected,” said Mark Schneider, president of CollegeMeasures and a vice president at the American Institutes for Research.
The job news gets even better for two-year graduates, reports Forbes.
This on the heels of stats from the Department of Labor from the fall that showed job growth for those with associate’s degrees was outpacing that of more advanced degree holders. The good news doesn’t stop there; the majority of the fastest growing occupations in the US, from dental hygienists to veterinary technologists, require only a community college education.
In 2010 – 2011, the average community college student paid $2713 in tuition and received, on average, $1700 in Pell Grant aid, Forbes notes. Most community college students don’t borrow to complete an associate degree and those who do don’t need to go heavily in debt.
Community college enrollment dipped by 2 percent in Texas this fall, reports the Houston Chronicle. The state’s improving economy may be drawing students back to the workforce. However, public universities and for-profit career colleges, saw slight enrollment gains.
“It was a bit of a wake-up call,” said Dominic Chavez, spokesman for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. “We’ve been going gangbusters on enrollment since 2000.”
Areas of the state undergoing an economic boom, such as with lucrative energy jobs near the Eagle Ford Shale natural gas and oil formation, are experiencing more substantial enrollment declines than other regions.
“It’s hard to keep a student in school to get their associate’s when they can go make $65,000 a year as a truck driver,” Chavez said.
Other factors are changes in federal Pell Grant rules: Students no longer can get “year-round” aid covering the summer semester. In addition, the state has fewer 18-year-olds. Finally, students are required now to be vaccinated against meningitis, a rule that’s discouraging some potential enrollees, according to a report by the Coordinating Board.
First there are diploma mills that persuade unqualified students to sign up for federal grants. Some are for-profit colleges, he writes, but unselective non-profits also sign up the unqualified.
Second is the “probable fact” that most Pell Grant recipients do not graduate from college. (It’s “probable” because the U.S. Education Department doesn’t publish data on Pell graduation rates.) ”This is arguably a scandal, certainly an inefficient use of public money,” Vedder writes.
Even worse, Pell “has been hijacked from its original purpose –helping poor people get degrees,” he writes. Fewer Pell recipients come from bottom-quartile families as the program expands to more and more students.
In 1980, fewer than 40 percent of full-time students received Pell Grants, according to Vedder’s calculations. That rose to 47 percent in 2006-07 — and soared to 82 percent in 2011-12. While that probably reflects the growing eligibility of part-time students for Pell aid, it’s out of line with the number of low-income students, he writes.
About 40 percent of college students — roughly seven million out of 18 million undergraduates — come from families earning less than $60,000 a year, a generous definition of financial need. Yet in 2011-12, there were 9.6 million Pell Grant recipients.
Pell Grants “have not increased the proportion of lower-income Americans amongst those graduating from college,” Vedder concludes. “It is time for a new federal financial aid model – a leaner, more efficient one that is both performance and need driven, not just an entitlement handed out to a majority of those attending college.”