With the country’s focus on college access and success, policy leaders are taking a close look at the Pell grant program, which is our country’s principal college financial aid program. This issue is especially timely with the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act on the horizon. One policy expert, Complete College America, has recommended moving Pell Grant eligibility for full-time status from a required course load of 12 credit hours to 15.
In a research brief by Complete College America called “The Power of 15 Credits,” the group makes a good case (citing data on first-time enrollees) that the larger credit load does, indeed, have an impact -- and improved students’ chances of earning a degree.
But is it that true for everyone?
What about the nontraditional or adult learner? Only 16 percent of higher education enrollments are 18- to 22-year-old full-time undergraduate students residing on campus. Adult students over 25 years old make up 38 percent of the college population. For these adult students, a 15 credit-hour load per semester is not realistic given current student supports.
Many of these students are returning adults with some college, but no degree. They are often juggling full-time jobs and family obligations that they must balance against their dreams of a college degree. In fact, almost a third of college students are working full-time. Should all these students be required to quit their jobs and take on more debt than what they already have so they can take 15 hours of classes? Requiring them to take 15 hours might cause them to give up their studies altogether.
Promoting the 15 hours per semester message for all students comes with a real risk. Most jobs of the future will require workers to possess postsecondary credentials. If we insist on requiring 15 credits for financial aid to the 80 million working adults who do not yet have a degree, we could seriously damage our nation’s workforce productivity by cutting off access to education and training for low-income workers. Instead of creating more obstacles, we should be looking for ways to address the challenges already facing adult students by:
- Increasing financial aid support to reduce the need to work full-time to cover living expenses
- Including in eligible expenses under Pell grants innovative approaches that help adults accelerate their path to a degree or credential
- Providing incentives for adults to maintain their momentum over a longer time to degree
- Encouraging institutions to structure their programs to better serve adults
At the end of the day, we can all agree on the importance of having a college education. We can also agree that having a more educated population is an overall advantage for our country. However, we cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach to the number of semester hours students should take. While encouraging students to finish their studies as soon as possible, we should also be finding ways to promote success at a pace that is reasonable for them.