A mother of four who was laid off in 2008, Danielle Torno had planned on turning her life around next year with the help of a Cal State East Bay business degree.
Instead, the 36-year-old San Jose resident will be searching for another solution because of a little-noticed congressional decision to reduce or eliminate Pell Grants for hundreds of thousands of the poorest college students.
The changes take effect July 1, and students like Torno will bear the brunt of the reforms, which are expected to save $11 billion over 10 years.
Among those who will lose Pell Grants in the summer are at least 65,000 new college students without high school diplomas and 63,000 who, like Torno, have spent more than six years in college. Changes in income requirements will reduce or eliminate grants for nearly 300,000 others.
Torno has been in college off and on since 2000, full time since 2008. Her time in school amounts to the equivalent of six full-time years, which is the new limit on how long a student may receive Pell Grants. The scholarships previously were available for nine years.
"You should be able to get a bachelor's degree in six years, honestly," said Torno, who received a letter last month from the U.S. Department of Education alerting her that she would lose the $5,550-a-year scholarships. "But there should be hardship exceptions. People have families."
Torno also has borrowed the maximum allowable $46,000 in federal loans, meaning her only remaining aid option could be private loans with higher interest rates. But even that is uncertain.
"My credit's too bad from not having a job," said Torno, who has been balancing child care and school by taking online courses. "I'm going to have to stop going to school."
For many students who never finished high school, the loss of Pell Grants could put college out of reach. Those students, who also will lose access to subsidized federal loans, had qualified for aid through an exam known as the ability-to-benefit test or by completing at least six college units.
A 2008 federal study found students without diplomas who had completed at least six units were as successful as other students.
"There's a lot of students who, for a lot of reasons, didn't complete high school but who have come back to school at a different point in their lives," said Emily Stone, dean of student-support services at Pleasant Hill's Diablo Valley College. "They could very well be ready to be a college student but need the financial aid."
Students without diplomas or a GED certificate, most of whom attend community or for-profit colleges, will remain eligible for Pell Grants if they have enrolled in college anytime before July 1. And they will still be able to receive state scholarships such as Cal Grants.
The impending changes were pushed by Republican members of Congress. Several of those members did not respond to repeated interview requests. In a written statement released by his office, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said Congress had to make "tough choices" to cut government funding for Pell Grants.
African-American and Latino students will be hit hardest, experts said. An estimated 31 percent of students who take the ability-to-benefit test are Latino, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, and 19 percent are black.
Combined, the two groups make up just 14 percent of undergraduates, the association said.
Minority students are essentially being blamed because their high schools failed them, said Manuel Alcala, a counselor at Laney College in Oakland.
"You're shutting the door on a whole group of students," Alcala said. "What kind of people are we creating?"
A coalition of groups is pushing Congress to reverse some of its Pell reforms. The most likely change would be to once again allow grants to students who have completed six college units, said Vickie Choitz, a senior policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Law and Social Policy.
"We've been hitting the Hill with a lot of meetings," Choitz said. "We're definitely getting interest from people who feel like this is a harsh change."