New Pell Grant Restrictions Hurt Community College Enrollment

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graduatesFewer people from the country’s poorest states are enrolling in community college since Congress tightened eligibility rules for federal tuition assistance through Pell grants last summer, according to a new report.

Out of 62 community colleges in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi, 47 saw their enrollment decline in the fall of 2012, the first semester since the new rules went into effect, according to a survey of financial aid administrators led by the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama.

“We’re hurting, especially when you look at Mississippi being one of the poorest states in the nation,” said Dr. Elizabeth Swinford, superintendent of the Vicksburg Warren School District, which partners with Hinds Community College, the largest community college in the state. Three out of four students at Hinds received Pell funding in the 2010-2011 school year.

The stricter eligibility rules have led more than 5,000 students in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi to lose their access to Pell grants last fall. Nearly 17,000 more will lose their Pell grants in the 2012-2013 school year, the report found.

“We just want to see more people educated,” Swinford said. “If you cut that funding, where will they go?”

Last June, Congress changed the rules for Pell grants in three important areas. It reduced the lifetime limit for which students could receive Pell funding from 18 full-time semesters to 12. It required families making more than $23,000 to contribute to their children’s education costs, compared to an earlier income requirement of $32,000 or less. And it took away the ability for students who had not completed high school to receive Pell funding for post-secondary study.

“Pell is the de facto state student aid program,” said Stephen Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama. In all three states, the amount of financial assistance to students provided by the state pales in comparison to the federal Pell grant program, he said.

The declines show that higher tuition costs are likely to make more people drop out of higher education altogether, especially single mothers who are working to support their children and trying to study at the same time, Swinford said. Community colleges also serve as an entry-point to a four-year degree for many students, making the long-term repercussions of the decline in enrollment even more critical, she said.

The tighter rules particularly hurt students who live in rural areas with poor access to public transit and to child care, Katsinas said.

“They have to pay for those things whether or not they go to college,” Katsinas said, pointing out that the majority of community college students are women.

With the percentage of community college students on Pell grants in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi at its highest level in history, any changes to eligibility requirements have “an immediate, negative impact,” the report said 

Nearly all the financial aid administrators surveyed said they would prefer the Pell grant program to offer lower awards with fewer restrictions, than to offer a higher award with higher restrictions.

“The simple truth is that all community colleges are more tuition-sensitive today; which means cuts at the federal level in Pell Grants can result in immediate enrollment declines, which in turn mean lower tuition revenue,” the report said.

Photo by Sakeeb Sabakka