In the continuing push to increase the proportion of Americans with college degrees, one group has been singled out as key to reach: those who have attended college and have some credits, but never earned a degree.
A recent change to eligibility for the Pell Grant, though, has made it harder for some of those students to complete their studies and earn a degree. One of a raft of Pell Grant changes included in the fiscal year 2012 budget, the change kicks students off the grant after 12 semesters. In the past, students could receive it for 18 semesters. The change was intended to save money and to encourage students to complete college more quickly.
When the change was made last year, it was projected to affect about 62,000 students. The number of students affected seems to line up with those projections, but colleges say that the change has hit particularly hard for transfer students, or for students who dropped out and are now taking a second run at college.
Twelve semesters, or six academic years, is still longer than the average college student takes to earn a bachelor’s degree. But one factor makes the change especially difficult, financial aid advisers and others on campus say: Existing recipients were not grandfathered in when the changes were passed, meaning some students who were counting on 18 semesters of eligibility were suddenly cut off. (This paragraph has been updated to correct an error. Part-time status is taken into account when calculating eligibility.)
The Pell Grant has repeatedly been under pressure in tight federal budgets, and the White House and members of Congress have preferred eligibility changes to reductions in the maximum grant as a way to cut costs. The changes, which took effect July 1, were projected to affect more than 100,000 students over all, and the majority of those students lost their grants because they had been enrolled in college too long.
The trade-off that produced the eligibility changes -- cutting costs from the grant program, but ending eligibility for students who might be about to complete a degree -- is one that is likely to be repeated in coming months, as Congress grapples with looming spending cuts and a shortfall for the Pell Grant.
Students who have transferred among multiple two- and four-year colleges — a pattern, known as "swirling," that is becoming more common in higher education — are more likely to have run out of time on the grants. Trident Technical College, in South Carolina, students who changed programs multiple times, or who enrolled after pursuing, but not earning, a degree at a for-profit college are among those who are most likely to have run out of eligibility, said Meg Howle, the college’s vice president for advancement.
About 540 of the college’s 22,748 students lost their Pell Grant eligibility and still returned this fall, Howle said. The college does not know how many lost eligibility and dropped out as a result.
Students who had been enrolled in college before but still needed remedial courses were also affected, because those students had used up more of their Pell Grant eligibility without earning credits that count toward a degree, Howle said.
Over all, the 12-semester eligibility change is less likely to affect community colleges than four-year institutions, said David Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. But he said students who started at community colleges and transfer to four-year colleges to finish their degrees are likely to have their eligibility affected.
In the California State University System, an “informal tally” during the summer found that about 6,100 students -- 4 percent of students systemwide -- lost Pell Grant eligibility because of the new 12-semester cap, said Michael Uhlenkamp, the system’s director of media relations.
This year, Sacramento State University was seeing would-be transfer students who had already run out of eligibility for the Pell Grant, the first time that has happened, said Edward Mills, associate vice president for enrollment management. Some were students from who had simply spent too many semesters at community college, but the students who became ineligible were more likely to have moved frequently, “stopped out” and returned to re-enroll, and shifted among community colleges and four-year institutions.
“The mobility, I think of both the job market in the last five years and the general mobility of a lot of our students, does cause people to jump around,” Mills said.
While Mills does not have exact numbers, he said he believed many students who lost eligibility still enrolled, choosing to take out student loans or pay in other ways, especially if they were near the end of their program. And he said he expected the new limits would lead to some positive changes, such as institutions paying more attention to students who were taking too long to graduate and urging them to pick a track and stick with it.
But that will do little to help students who have attended several institutions without finishing a degree. “The unfortunate part of the regulation is that it wasn’t grandfathered in any way,” Mills said. “If you’ve been floating around the different types of schools for the last four or five years and now suddenly there’s this new regulation, you’re already going to be in trouble.”