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A Summer Without Pell

August 2, 2012

WASHINGTON -- By the standards of most federal financial aid programs, the year-round Pell Grant had a short and uneventful life. The three-year experiment -- which let students receive two of the need-based grants in one year to help pay for summer classes -- was killed off by bipartisan agreement in last year’s federal budget.

But concern about the program’s elimination has lingered. More than a year after the last summer grants were distributed, colleges are worried that ending the program could have lingering effects on college completion and enrollment. Summer enrollments at many community colleges, as well as at some public institutions, have decreased this year -- the first full summer without the year-round Pell Grant, which ended July 1, 2011.

In some ways, the continuing outcry over the program’s end is unexpected. Unlike many of the recent cuts to student loans and Pell Grants, President Obama suggested ending the program, cutting its $8 billion appropriation in his budget request. At the time, the administration’s overriding goal was preserving the maximum grant of $5,550. Officials, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, described cutting the second Pell Grant as a tough but necessary sacrifice.

In its budget justifications, the department said that the program was proving more expensive than anticipated, and cited "significant concerns" that year-round Pell Grants hadn't increased college completion rates as much as might have been hoped. "In light of the extraordinary costs of this initiative, and  before any additional costs are incurred, the Administration believes it is prudent to thoroughly study whether the benefits generated are sufficient to justify the expense," department officials wrote.

At the time, with the focus on preserving the maximum Pell Grant, that rationale was largely accepted, with little outcry from colleges and student advocates.

But more than a year later, the existential threat to Pell Grants appears to have faded; the proposed House of Representatives budget, which in recent years has called for deeper cuts, would increase the Pell Grant maximum in 2013. This summer, with many more students denied the second Pell Grants, colleges have started to worry.

At the University of Texas-Pan American, where more than two-thirds of students are on Pell Grants, administrators say the additional summer grant helped the college’s six-year graduation rate increase from 36 percent to 42 percent (higher if students who transfer are included) over two years.

“It just opened up the floodgates for the kids because they could go to summer school,” says Robert S. Nelsen, the university’s president. “It made a tremendous difference.”

The university made other changes, including improving advising and focusing on getting students into prerequisite classes, he says. But students were excited about the Pell Grants, Nelsen says, and the university knew that eliminating the program would pose a problem.

This year, summer enrollment at the university has dropped by 10 percent; it has decreased by 1,400 students since 2010, when the summer Pell Grant was in full force. Nelsen is worried about what the drop will eventually do to the graduation rate.

Community colleges had a smaller share of summer Pell Grant recipients than their share of Pell Grants as a whole: 27 percent of students getting a second Pell Grant were enrolled at community colleges, compared to 34 percent of all Pell Grant recipients. Still, community colleges have been especially concerned about the decrease.

“We absolutely have heard quite a bit from our members,” says David Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. In 2011, the association felt “overwhelmed by the political forces pushing for its elimination,” he says of the year-round grant. But Baime says he expects a discussion about partially restoring summer Pell Grants when the Higher Education Act comes up for renewal next year.

At Cuyahoga Community College, students have opted to work in the summer rather than stretch their Pell Grant across an additional few months of classes, says Belinda Miles, the college’s provost, who adds that about 850 students were affected by the change. She worries that students who opt not to attend in the summer will take longer to finish college.

“We administrators like to think of summer as a third full semester as opposed to a break,” Miles said. “Any break in being continuously enrolled means more time to get to degree completion.”

At Quinsigamond Community College, in Worcester, Mass., enrollment has increased every semester -- including during the summer -- for the past five years, Iris Godes, the college’s assistant vice president for enrollment management, wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. This year, summer enrollment has dropped by 5 percent.

Students generally need to take five courses per semester to graduate with an associate degree in two years, Godes said. In the past, students had taken four courses in the spring and fall and two courses in the summer to catch up -- but since a four-course load is still considered full time, they needed the additional Pell Grant to get through the summer.

Senate Democrats have tried to restore some funding for another provision whose elimination infuriated colleges, the "ability to benefit" provision that let some students without a high school diploma or GED receive federal aid, was partially restored in the fiscal year 2013 budget. But the restoration of the second Pell Grant is less certain. Aides to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions would say only that all financial aid programs will be considered when the Higher Education Act comes up for reauthorization next year.

For some colleges, that might not be soon enough.

“I appreciate that the government is struggling to fund the federal Pell Grant Program,” Godes wrote. Still, she added: “It is most unfortunate to have provided the year-round option and then take it away.”

 

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