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For many students, Pell Grants make college affordable

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Delores Barber credits Pell Grants with helping her afford to attend the Community College of Philadelphia. She graduated last month with an associate degree.​
Completing community college has been a long, hard struggle for Delores Barber, and she couldn’t have done it without a Pell Grant.

The 29-year-old has been receiving about $1,500 to $2,000 a semester in Pell Grants since 2008, which allowed her to graduate from the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) last month with an associate degree in culture, science and technology/allied health.
 
“I struggle a lot,” Barber said. “I’ve had to make some tough choices,” like cutting back on groceries and turning off the air conditioner in her apartment during a heat wave.  But when asked if she considered dropping out of college, she said “that is not an option.”
 
For many students living on the edge, even the slightest cuts in Pell funding could put their dreams of completing community college out of reach.
 
That’s why the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) and the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) are launching a national advocacy campaign this week aimed at combating efforts in Congress to reduce the maximum Pell amount, which is $5,550 a year.
 
AACC and ACCT are hosting a free webinar on Pell for community college leaders June 21 and are creating a  new website with the latest information on legislation affecting the Pell program, key data showing why Pell is crucial for community college students, and advocacy tools to influence Congress and the media.
 
“Simply put, community colleges would have an entirely different face without this essential program,” said AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus. “Our colleges, and indeed all of higher education, are unthinkable without the financial support Pell Grants have provided. Here is one example of government really doing something right.”
 
But with Pell costs soaring, members of Congress bent on slashing the federal budget deficit have been eyeing the huge Pell program as ripe for cutting.
 
Budget pressures
 
The House appropriations subcommittee on education is considering cutting Pell funding when it marks up a fiscal year 2012 spending bill, which it is expected to do by the end of July.
 
The Senate has rejected a proposal by House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to reduce the maximum Pell Grant to $3,150. But some members of Congress have called for smaller cuts, although there is nothing concrete on the table yet.
 
Other possibilities for curbing Pell funding that have been discussed in Congress include reducing the number of semesters students could receive aid and excluding students attending college less than half time from receiving Pell funds. Congress already eliminated summer Pell Grants, starting with the 2011-12 academic year.
 
Pell’s sharply escalating costs have made it a prime target for budget cutters. Spending in the program has doubled in the past three years and is currently at about $40 billion for the current year. It now makes up nearly half of the U.S. Education Department’s budget.
 
And because the troubled economy has led to declining incomes and driven so many unemployed people back to school—especially to community college—demand for Pell Grants has soared, upping the program’s shortfall to $11 billion.
 
The number of Pell recipients at public two-year institutions increased 36.8 percent between 2008-09 and 2009-10, compared to a 31.5 percent increase in recipients at all higher education institutions. Of the nearly 8.1 million Pell grant recipients in 2009-10, more than 35 percent were community college students.
 
“Community college students tend to be the neediest when it comes to financial support for education, and many are the first in their family to attend college,” said Joe May, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.
 
If the maximum grant is cut from $5,550 to $4,731, as has been proposed, May estimates about 3,000 Louisiana community college students would no longer qualify. All in all, he said, Louisiana students would have about $9 million less to spend on education.
 
Delayed completion
 
Any increased costs for students, even “increasing the cost as little as $50 or $100,” would likely cause many students to take fewer courses per semester, thus delaying their goals to complete college, May said.
 
And that would result in “delayed attainment goals,” he said. “Any time you increase the length of time it takes to complete college, it increases the likelihood that something will interfere, and the student will not finish.”
 
If it wasn’t for Pell Grants, Ivan Hicks said it would have taken him six or seven years to complete an associate degree in business administration at CCP. Thanks to Pell Grants of about $2,775 a semester, he’s able to do it in one-and-a-half years.
 
After an unsuccessful attempt at college following his graduation from high school in 1996, Hicks drifted through a series of jobs. But without a degree, he said, he would be “passed over for management positions, no matter how much you know.” 

This fall, he will transfer to Temple University to pursue a degree in actuarial science.
 
Barber’s experiences in the workforce also convinced her to go back to college, after dropping out in 1999. Barber worked at Wal-Mart and Target alongside some people in their 60s and 70s who were working two or three jobs to support themselves.

“I made a decision,” she said. “I didn’t want to be still working at age 70.  I realized if I went back to school, I would be able to get a better job.”
 
Even with Pell aid, Barber still has to work part-time to afford college. After she was laid off from her job at CCP when budget cuts forced the college to eliminate hundreds of work-study positions, she  found a minimum wage job at a pizza place.
 
Now, Barber is concerned that cuts in Pell Grants might affect her studies at Temple, where she plans to transfer this fall to study social work, and which costs three times more than CCP. 

If Pell were cut, “I would have to take fewer classes,” she said. “It would take me much longer to get through school.”
 
Pell has also been “a really big help” to CCP student Gloria Branch, who receives $2,500 a semester. Without Pell, “I would only be able to take one class at a time,” she said.
 
After graduating from high school in 2004, Branch became the first in her family to go to college. But after two semesters at Drexel University, she couldn’t afford to continue. She still owes $40,000 in student loans.
 
Branch worked in retail and as a bartender. She spent five years in a management training program at Bed, Bath & Beyond, but “the whole time I was there, I wanted to go back to school,” she said.
 
CCP has been the “best experience,” she noted. “I’m always in the library studying. I know why it matters now.” Noting that many people in her neighborhood didn’t complete high school, Branch said “it’s nice to be around people (at CCP) who want more for themselves.”
 
Branch plans to transfer to West Chester University in Pennsylvania to pursue a degree in sociology after completing her associate degree in behavioral health and sciences.
 
Affordability is critical
 
Affordability for students is absolutely critical, said CCP President Stephen Curtis, whose college has launched its own effort to save Pell. More than half of the students at CCP are Pell recipients, and “more than 13,000 students wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Pell,” Curtis said. “Community college students really need that sort of support to attend college.”
 
It’s not just about covering their tuition and fees, he said. Receiving a Pell Grant also makes a difference in whether students can pay for all the other college-related expenses, such as fees, books, transportation, and child care.
 
“There is no single funding or policy issue that has a greater impact on us than Pell,” said Curtis, who noted that one-third of CCP’s revenue comes from Pell Grants.
 
If the maximum award was reduced, “we believe our enrollment would decrease,” Curtis said. And, as a result, “college revenue would absolutely decline.”
 
“Pell has literally changed this country,” added May. “Pell has been the key to building our economy and workforce. It makes no sense to cut this program at a time when we have record unemployment and we’re trying to rebuild the economy.”
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