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Twelve Semesters
September 17, 2012 - 9:25pm

Starting this July, Pell grants have a new rule: any given student has a lifetime limit of twelve semesters. If you can’t finish your degree within twelve semesters, you’re on your own.

The rule seemingly came out of nowhere, but it has major implications for community colleges.

That may seem counterintuitive to many, since six years (twelve semesters) sounds like plenty of time. But it’s a bit of a time bomb for students attending part time, students starting in the ESL courses, or even students with a lot of developmental coursework.

The Feds expressed the limit in semesters, rather than credits -- I know, I know -- so it doesn’t pro-rate for students who attend part-time.  Twelve semesters means twelve semesters. If you’re going half-time, an associate’s degree would take eight semesters, assuming no developmental courses, repeats, failures, or withdrawals. (In the community college world, that’s assuming a lot.)  At that point, you don’t have much margin for error if you choose to go on for a bachelor’s.  

Throw in a few semesters of ESL, a semester or two of remediation, and a false start or two, and a student could easily run out of Pell well before finishing a bachelor’s. In some cases, the student might run out even before the associate’s. A program that goes beyond two years, like Nursing, can be an even greater challenge.

I understand the impulse behind it, at some level. Nobody wants to encourage students to hang around forever, especially on the public dime. But stranding students halfway through their studies doesn’t serve a useful purpose that I can see. If you assume that every student is full-time and college-ready, twelve semesters sounds pretty generous. But in the world of students as they actually exist, it can be pretty restrictive.

Part-time students are often older -- frequently parents -- and they’re trying to move up the occupational ladder to take care of their families. They’re trying to work their way up; they’re about the farthest thing from the stereotypical slacker as you can find. These are exactly the students that people who actually know them like to root for.  

To add insult to injury, the change went through without a grandfather clause. A student who was pacing herself at half-time abruptly found herself almost out of time, on a clock that didn’t even exist when she started. We’ve had to give some students a cold bit of news this Fall.  

The change didn’t happen in a vacuum, of course. But it’s more objectionable than most. Basic fairness would suggest grandfathering, especially for those who are well along in their programs. But even beyond that, it’s hard to see the point of closing doors on people who are actually working hard to improve their lots in life.

Yes, student loans are still available, and that helps. But it’s a bit of a shell game to refer to loans as ‘aid.’ Loans have to be paid back. And for the single Mom who takes classes at night while working crap jobs during the day, those payback schedules can be pretty daunting.

In case there’s any misunderstanding, I’m not claiming that there’s a “right” to grants. I’m claiming that grants do a tremendous amount of good, and that cheaping out on them is a false economy. Compared to so many of the other ways that money is spent, helping struggling adults adjust to the new economy seems to me one of the better ones.  

First summer Pell went away, then a lifetime cap was enacted. I’m not sure what we’re punishing poor strivers for, but we should really stop. If we need to inflict punishment somewhere, I can think of a bunch of better targets.


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