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Championing year-round Pell

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(Fr​om far left) Deneece Huftalin, president of Salt Lake Community College (Utah); Karen Bowyer, president of Dyersburg State Community College (Tennessee); Charlene Dukes, president of Prince George's Community College (Maryland); Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System; and Daniel Phelan, president of Jackson College (Michigan).
 

​Reinstating year-round Pell grants  — a key area for community colleges — is making some progress in Congress.

A Senate appropriation subcommittee on Tuesday approved a funding bill that would reinstate year-round Pell, which was nixed in 2011 after only a year. Bringing back the year-round program has remained a top legislative priority for the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

Details were not available at our press time, but AACC says the language adopted by the subcommittee also would likely make part-time students eligible for year-round Pell.

“This provision is especially important for community college students,” AACC said in a legislative update to member colleges.

Emphasizing its importance

On Monday, community college advocates held on informational briefing on Capitol Hill to outline the legislative priorities for two-year colleges. Bringing back year-round Pell grants was among the five points to improve the Pell program.

“That’s a very high priority for our students,” noted Tim Sheenan, vice president for government and community relations at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC), which co-sponsored the event with AACC.

SLCC President Deneece Huftalin noted that enrollment increased by 26 percent at her college when students were able to use Pell grants for summer courses. It dropped by 5 percent when year-round eligibility was eliminated.

Materials from Capitol Hill briefingHuftalin emphasized the year-round grants are critical to keep students — who also often juggle work and family life — going to class. They want to finish their courses as quickly as possible, so having options such as taking summer classes — and receiving aid to pay for it — is important.

“Consistency of enrollment is more important than credit hours,” she said, referring to community college students often taking fewer credits per semester because of other obligations.

Year-round Pell was also crucial at other colleges around the country. When it was eliminated, community colleges in Colorado saw a summer drop of 7,000 students, according to Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System.

“The lack of year-round Pell significantly hurt our students,” she said.

Pell for short-term programs

Community college presidents at Monday’s briefing also called on Congress to give institutions some flexibility to extend Pell eligibility for short-term and innovative programs.

Under current law, programs that are 16 semesters or 600 hours over 15 weeks qualify for federal student aid, including Pell grants. But community college advocates argue that certain short-term workforce programs — particularly those serving in-demand industries such as healthcare, IT, manufacturing and others — should qualify.

In a paper detailing its priorities to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, AACC recommended that 2 percent of a college’s previous Pell disbursement be set aside for such training programs.

“This approach would allow institutions to focus these additional resources on their most-effective, high-priority training programs while imposing a strict limit on the overall amount of additional Pell Grant spending,” it said.

McCallin noted that such flexibility would allow community college students in Colorado to pursue short-term training for in-demand careers such as firefighting, emergency management, welding and cybersecurity.

“Yet these short-term programs that businesses want us to do are not eligible for Pell,” she said.

Tackling student loans

An issue of growing concern for community colleges is the number and amount of loans taken out by students to pay for college expenses. About 20 percent of community college students have taken such loans; 20 years ago, it was 4 percent, according to David Baime, AACC’s senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis.

Many of these students borrow too much and often drop out, leading to loan defaults, which bump up colleges’ default rates and put their eligibility to participate in federal student aid programs at risk.

AACC would like Congress to give community colleges flexibility in determining how much students can take out in federal student loans. College would, for example, factor in whether a students is ready for college-level work, what courses and career they intend to pursue, and whether they have previous student loans.

Community colleges also want to provide more loan counseling to students. Under current law, colleges must provide entrance and exit loan counseling. They can’t require more frequent counseling, but they may offer it, according to AACC.

When the U.S. Education Department informs students they can receive a federal student loan, it notes the full amount they can tap, which is usually far beyond what they need to attend a community college. This often leads to overborrowing and defaulting on loans. More frequent loan counseling would allow colleges to remind students of the risk, according to community college leaders.

“All students hear is that they can borrow $10,000 and it’s no problem,” said Karen Bowyer, president of Dyersburg State Community College in Tennessee, who spoke about her college’s experiences with student loans.

In 2010, Dyersburg State faced a 26 percent student loan default rate in 2010. It brought in a third-party provider to curb that rate, which included offering more counseling and stricter attendance, among other steps. In 2013, the college’s preliminary default rate  — which is the most recent default data available — dipped to 19 percent.

Other points for HEA authorization addressed at the briefing included:

  • Linking the maximum Pell Grant amount to inflation
  • Nixing the idea of community colleges sharing the financial risks of student loans
  • Establishing a federal unit record data system
  • Preserving accreditation

 

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