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Over the past five years, the number of community college students receiving Pell Grants has increased by 92 percent, according to a new policy brief from the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). In the past academic year alone, the number of recipients increased 21 percent.
However, the cost of the federal program in helping students in part pay for a higher education has also increased. Over the same five-year period, expenditures for Pell Grants have swelled 182 percent, including 19 percent in the last year.
That’s what federal lawmakers and policymakers are grappling with as they look to cut federal spending. Pell Grants have historically received bipartisan support, but higher education advocates are concerned lawmakers may look toward the $35 billion program for savings at a time when their impact is critically important.
“Discussions on Capitol Hill about changes to the Pell Grant program should factor into them the real lives and people who could be impacted,” said AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus. “The Pell Grant program has historically been a vital support for many seeking to better themselves.”
Bumphus noted that the dramatic surge in enrollments throughout the community college system is a result of the economic recession, and community colleges are a viable option for students to acquire or update their education and skills for employment.
“More people are turning to community colleges to help them keep their dreams of higher education alive, and they need funding to stay in school and earn the credentials needed for the workplace,” he said.
Changes in trends
The policy brief, which was in part funded by Lumina Foundation, outlined the history of the Pell Grant program and changes in the number and types of students that it serves. For example, during the first 20 years of the program, community colleges enrolled more than a quarter of all Pell Grant recipients. Since 1992, about a third of all recipients attend public two-year colleges.
The brief also examined the number of independent and dependent community college students who benefit from the program. In 2009-10, 37 percent of all part-time, two-year college students were financially responsible for another person, and nearly half of students who attended less than part time were independent and supporting a dependent.
Although community colleges offer a modestly priced higher education, and the $5,550 Pell Grant maximum covers significant costs such as tuition and fees, the grant pays for only 29 percent of all the expenses associated with a nine-month academic year, including transportation and housing.
Paying that difference is especially hard for such students. Most community college students receiving Pell Grants—nearly 80 percent—live in poverty, the brief noted. About 78 percent of community college students with Pell Grants work while attending college.
Higher education advocates would like to see the number of full-time community college students who work decrease because full-time students who don’t work historically have been more likely to graduate. The policy brief noted that Pell Grants are helping community college students to focus just on their education. While only 40 percent of all community college students enroll full time, nearly double that percentage of two-year students receiving a Pell Grant were enrolled full time in 2009–2010, according to the brief.
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges