Lawmakers push for Pell Grant changes

A U.S. House committee said its plan could help students graduate sooner

Lawmakers push for Pell Grant changes

Blair Emerson

If a group of national lawmakers has its way, some University of Minnesota students could get more help paying for summer classes.

As Congress works to renew the Higher Education Act, which expired in January, lawmakers last month proposed a list of initiatives. One initiative would make the federal Pell Grant program more flexible so students could use aid as needed, which some say would help students graduate in a shorter period of time and would better support nontraditional students.

The U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s proposed Flex Pell Grant program would allow students to determine the amount of funds they are able to receive over a six-year period at the outset of their studies and to use that money as needed throughout their undergraduate education.

The plan is in its preliminary stages, and no new policies have been drafted yet.

Pell Grants are typically awarded to low-income undergraduate students. In 2013, one-fourth of University undergraduates at the Twin Cities campus received Pell Grants, totaling more than $30 million in federal aid, according to the Office of Institutional Research.

The grant is awarded to students on a yearly basis and typically covers only the fall and spring semesters, said Kris Wright, the director of the University’s Office of Student Finance.

Before the summer Pell Grant program was cut in 2011, students could apply for the grant twice a year.

Wright said the summer Pell Grant program, although short-lived, was well utilized by the University students who were aware of it.

Wright said most Pell Grant-eligible students use all of their funding in the fall and spring semesters and don’t have enough aid available for the summer. So while those students would likely benefit from a year-round grant, she said, they may not use the program to graduate more quickly.

“I think that it’s a really good idea because it would provide more aid to students early in their academic career,” she said.

“It just means students need to be very focused on getting done.”

Abeer Syedah, a sophomore and Minnesota Student Association member, said the Pell Grant she received last year helped cover a large portion of her tuition. She planned to take a summer class this year, but she couldn’t because her financial aid package didn’t roll over into the summer, she said.

And taking a summer class would require her to pay out-of-pocket or apply for financial aid early, which she said wasn’t an option for her.

“If we had year-round financial aid packages, I might be able to — and I think students in general might be able to — see summer as a viable option,” she said.

Some financial aid officers believe having a year-round program would also help students complete their degrees faster, said Tricia Grimes, a financial aid analyst at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

“If those students got this year-round Pell Grant, they would be able to attend in the summer, and that might, in fact, enable them to complete their degree more quickly,” she said.

Ryan Olson, the director of MSA’s Twin Cities Advocacy Corps, said he supports the idea of more flexible financial aid, but he urged for oversight of how students would be spending their Pell Grant funding.

“If we want this policy to be a good one, if we want a Flex Pell [Grant] to work … we’re going to want smart financial aid advising for students,” he said.

Lawmakers have considered revising the Pell Grant program for a while, and they’ve modeled many policy ideas from financial aid officials.

Last year, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, a nonprofit organization, developed a similar year-round concept — the “Pell Well” — that would allow students to draw funds based on their financial needs.

The group’s report outlined the importance of an updated Pell Grant program that meets the needs of the growing number of nontraditional students who take classes outside of the typical academic year.

Megan McClean, NASFAA’s director of policy and federal relations, said having a more flexible Pell Grant would benefit both nontraditional students and taxpayers.

“If we gave [Pell Grant-eligible students] the opportunity, they could go in the summer, they could progress more quickly … [and] if they get through more quickly, then they borrow less,” she said. “So it’s really a cycle.”