Pell Grant Lives to Fight Another Day

The Federal Pell Grant Program has survived another year in Washington after exhaustive bargaining during the debt ceiling crisis, ending in a rushed deal just two days before the Aug. 2 deadline. But the worry isn’t over for students yet; in fact, this is an anxious moment that happens at least once a year.

The Pell Grant Program is a federal aid program which helps low-income students go to college. For many, it is the difference between pursuing higher education, and being unable to afford it.

As much as 65% of MCTC students received Pell Grants in 2010 according to the American College Review, and 70% of students in community colleges nationally according to a University of Alabama study, increasing by half in the 2009-2010 school year.

Those numbers have been on the rise in the wake of a troubled economy, with more and more families watching their savings vanish before their eyes, and high unemployment a seemingly interminable problem. Simultaneously, tuition rates are on the rise with tuition, on average, 38% higher than it was in 2003, according to the USA Today annual survey. The increase in tuition is out-pacing the maximum Pell grant amount, leaving students footing more of the bill.

A tough combination for students and their families, which has pushed student loan debt even higher than credit card debt, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org. Due to these trying financial times and spiking tuition rates, the Department of Education reports that Pell Grant enrollment has ballooned from 6.1 million in 2008 to an estimated 9.6 million in 2012, doubling the cost of the program when combined with the increased grant limit and increased eligibility implemented in 2009.

The Pell Grant Program is considered discretionary spending, and as such, is up for review every year. Several years running, it has been slated for cuts, as the higher learning centers of America stand nervously by each cycle.

So far, those cuts have not come to fruition. But next year, like every year, they are to be evaluated for proposed cuts yet again, with lawmakers proposing a tightening of qualification standards, and a limited number of semesters students may receive Pell Grants.

Subsidies for graduate students were cut in the debt ceiling debacle, shielding Pell Grants for undergrads. “This is a compromise budget,” said Gene Sperling of the National Economic Council, “but one that we believe makes the necessary room for the most important investments in winning the future in innovation and research and education.”

But to many schools, it still paints a worrying picture for the future of Pell Grants and financial aid for students in general. While most of the Pell Grant Program was left intact, and the over-all budget increased, it’s not all good news for students.

The double-Pell Program for students attending summer school was cut, which over 400 MCTC students previously received, and graduate students will already be feeling the pinch, as their loans once again begin accruing interest while they are still enrolled, thanks to the more drastic cuts for graduate students.

The looming question of what the long-term outlook is for the Pell Grant Program is still unanswered, and it has schools, teachers, students and families concerned. Angela Christensen, the Financial Aid Director at MCTC, is at the front lines and sees first-hand the struggle students face.

“More kids are needing to take out student loans,” Christensen said, “A lot of times, Pell Grants just cover their courses, but not all of their books, so they have to take out loans for books.”

The gap between the maximum Pell Grant award and the sky-rocketing price of tuition is responsible for this shift. More and more students are leaving school staring down a looming debt, which they may be paying off for years, or even decades.

But at MCTC, there is also a problem with late registration, resulting in delayed awards.

“We’ve tried to impose priority dates to get kids ready for the first day,” said Christensen. But many students are still awaiting their award letters into the second week, or later.

This can lead to the late appliers receiving no grant money at all. The Federal Pell Grant Program gives each state a certain amount of money each semester. If a prospective student applies too late, there may not be anything left in the pool, leaving the student to rely on loans, their own savings, or try again next semester.

At the same time, Christensen thinks we could be using the funds we do have better. Another cut program was the Academic Competitiveness Grant (ACG), but working behind the scenes, Christensen believes this can only be a good thing.

“We had the ACG, but very few had it and it’s resource-intensive,” she said of the experimental program. “We could put that into the fall grants.”

The Pell Grant may be safe for now, and the cuts that did happen may not be a bad thing for the federal program upon which many undergrads rely. But of the future, Christensen is less certain.

“You never know what they’ll cut,” she said. “There’s a chance every legislative session, and you just don’t know.”

But Christensen believes this is too important, like so many involved in the academic world in the wake of our struggling economy.

“Here’s my message to Washington,” she said, “I would ask that they invest resources in the grant programs, especially the Federal Pell Grant, so students do not have to incur high amounts of debt in order to graduate from college.”

Next year will be a whole new heated debate over the state of higher education in America, but for now, students, Christensen and college faculty around the country have lived to fight another day.