Pell Grants the Real Barrier between Poor Families and College Educations

Recently, both Slate and the New York Times ran pieces criticizing the Pell Grant program as being "not nearly enough to cover college costs for any of its recipients", making it "impossible for [students] to graduate on time."

Completing a bachelor's degree in 4 years typically means taking 15 or 16 credit hours, although the Pell Grant program defines being a full-time student as 12 credit hours per term. This disconnect means that although students are being classified as full-time students, they continually fall behind by credit hours each year, resulting in their taking longer to graduate than their peers. Although they may be intellectually capable of finishing in four years—or less—the current parameters of the Pell program restrict them from fulfilling their own needs at their own paces.

The problem lies in how terms and credit hours are set, with Postsecondary Analytics finding 35 out of 50 public flagship universities charging by a set rate (per year, with no difference between 12 or 15 credit hours), and 42 out of 50 community colleges charging by credit hour. The former enables student s to enrol in as many courses as they can, letting them graduate on time or earlier, while the latter prohibits from doing so…unless they can afford to take more credits.

Another problem exists in the Pell grant being capped and tuition not. Students receive a check of the difference between the amount of tuition and the amount of the grant, but because of the imbalance in capping, students who take 15 credit hours receive a smaller check than those who take 12. And when the Pell grant program was started 41 years ago, it was the fixed-price system executives had in mind, with students actually being able to take the necessary credits to graduate in four years.

Unless the Pell program is changed, the very students who most needs its help are going to be the ones squeezed out: low-income students who want to complete their degrees on time.

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