For many college students, summer is a time to pursue internships, work full-time or otherwise take a break from classes. Not so this year for many students at Louisiana community colleges.
The state’s system of two-year institutions has seen a 10 percent increase in enrollment over this time last summer and a 17 percent increase in credit hours pursued, said Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. He attributes that jump to the first full summer of year-round Pell Grants since Congress restored the aid last year.
“That just doesn’t happen without some type of change in policy or resources that spurs it,” Sullivan said. “There’s no question in my mind that it is directly related back to the year-round Pell issue.”
With summer sessions just beginning on college campuses, many institutions are seeing an uptick in enrollment attributed in part to year-round Pell Grants. Because it's still early in the summer and many institutions have yet to determine their final numbers, there are no good estimates of how much attendance has increased across the country. But updates from a selection of colleges provide anecdotal evidence at least that the policy change is having a real impact at the campus level.
The total student head count at the Louisiana community college system is up to more than 18,000 for this summer, and those students are pursuing more than 104,200 credit hours.
Some individual campuses are seeing especially large increases. At Northshore Technical Community College, in the eastern part of Louisiana, credit hour enrollment is up 42 percent over all. And at Louisiana Delta Community College, in Monroe, students have enrolled in 45 percent more credit hours over last summer, Sullivan said.
Those colleges are seeing the early payoffs of a decision by Congress to restore year-round Pell Grants in a budget deal last year after eliminating the grant aid in 2011. Students attending summer classes previously could only use whatever grant aid they had not used in the fall and spring semesters. The change allowed Pell recipients access to the full grant amount for a typical semester.
Sullivan said the additional grant aid isn’t just making summer classes more accessible for students. It’s also helping them progress more quickly toward their degrees. The share of full-time students at the Louisiana two-year system has jumped from 52 percent last year to nearly 60 percent this summer.
“In my estimation, the biggest deterrent to completion is time,” Sullivan said. “What enrolling in the summer does is it narrows the amount of time to a credential.”
The bump in attendance for summer classes may also counteract, however slightly, a recent trend of declining enrollment at community colleges. (See related article, also published today, here.) A recent Inside Higher Ed survey of presidents of two-year institutions found that enrollment issues were a major concern among respondents; 57 percent said enrollment was down at their colleges over the past three years.
The summer Pell Grants first became available last year when classes were already under way on many campuses. Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said colleges last year had little guidance or time to process the new grant aid.
The rollout in the second year of summer Pell largely appears to have gone smoothly, he said. The long-term effects of the new policy will take time to sort out, though.
“It could mean more enrollment over the summer. It could mean less loan debt,” Draeger said. “There were two policy objectives here.”
The effect of year-round Pell was more muted in New York, where the City University of New York system projects a modest increase in summer enrollment. Frank Sobrino, a CUNY spokesman, said it’s still early to attribute that growth to any specific factors.
But early numbers from areas where state support is less generous, and where students rely more heavily on federal aid, show the policy change paying big dividends.
At Wallace State Community College, in Hanceville, Ala., the number of students receiving Pell Grants in the summer jumped 58 percent to 1,144 this year. The jump in total credit hours students are pursuing was even higher -- from about 5,900 in 2017 to more than 10,200 this summer.
College officials said that’s evidence that students aren’t just taking advantage of year-round Pell, they are also enrolling with greater intensity, meaning they are more likely to complete a degree or certificate faster.
At Valencia College, a two-year institution in Orlando, Fla., officials say they have offered Pell Grants to 9,074 students this summer compared to 6,414 in the previous year. Not all of those students will end up taking summer classes, but the policy change will give 2,500 more students the chance to continue course work this year, said Linda Beaty, a spokeswoman for Valencia.
The typical Valencia student is not enrolled full-time, so many would use the grant aid left over from the fall and spring semesters to pay for summer courses. If they didn’t have any Pell funds remaining, many would pay for summer tuition out of their own pockets.
“With this change, students can take classes year-round using Pell funds and move quickly toward graduation without worrying about running out of Pell funds,” Beaty said.
Restoring year-round Pell Grants was a critical step because it aligned financial aid policy with how students are actually attending college, said Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Access Network.
Work or family responsibilities often keep students from taking more than 12 credit hours in a given semester, she said, making graduation in four years unrealistic without summer classes. Enrolling in summer classes allows students to stay on track to earning 30 credits a year and finishing their degree earlier.
"That’s particularly important to us because we know the importance of being continuously enrolled and the impact that has on on-time completion," she said.