College leaders say proposed changes to the federal Pell Grant system could be devastating to lower-income students seeking higher education.
The proposed changes from U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., and Francis Rooney, R-Fla., call for students who do not graduate within six years to pay back their Pell Grants. The Pell Performance Act would turn the grants into unsubsidized loans for students who don’t graduate within six years.
“The Pell for Performance Act encourages students to graduate within the maximum amount of time,” Norman wrote in a statement to The Herald. “The Department of Education classifies graduating ‘on time’ as graduating from a two-year college within three years and from a four-year school within six years.”
In fall 2009, 59 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduate students who sought a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution graduated within six years, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Norman said the Pell Grant program, paid for by taxpayers, costs more than $22 billion.
“As a businessman, I support purpose-driven solutions that develop a skilled labor force that can compete in the global market while still protecting the American taxpayers,” Norman said. “This legislation simply motivates Pell Grant recipients to be sure to continue to graduate on time.”
However, since Pell Grants are awarded based on financial need, the changes could add to rising student debt and possibly limit access to higher education for some, said Eduardo Prieto, vice president for access and enrollment management for Winthrop University in Rock Hill.
“I appreciate any effort to reduce the burden on taxpayers. At Winthrop we take that responsibility seriously,” Prieto said. “On the other hand, if this bill goes through, I’m fearful it would be detrimental to many students, not only here at Winthrop but students in general across the nation.”
To receive a Pell Grant, students must be seeking their first undergraduate degree. Their eligibility and award amount are determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Students with an Expected Family Contribution of $5,328 or less qualify for the Pell Grant, according the U.S. Department of Education. Grants range from $606 to $5,920.
Prieto said many students who receive Pell Grants are first generation students who also take on student loans and work to pay for school.
If the bill passes, a Pell Grant of $5,000, for example, retroactive six years could become a $30,000 student loan debt, plus interest, Prieto said.
Riley Moody, 20, a Rock Hill High School graduate and junior economics major at Winthrop, said the Pell Grant and working has helped her attend college.
“I didn’t know how I was going to pay for college without scholarships or grants,” she said.
Moody said the proposed changes could discourage students like her from attending college.
“It would freak me out,” she said. “As a student, I don’t want to take anything that is too risky. What if I had some sort of family or medical situation, something that’s unforeseen. If this bill goes through, I would have to pay that back. Then it’s something that initially would be helpful but now it is kind of a risk factor.”
The changes could affect a good chunk of the population at York Technical College, as well. About half of York Tech’s student population receive either full or partial Pell Grants, said Monique Perry, assistant vice president for enrollment services. Almost 90 percent of York Tech students receive some sort of financial aid.
Perry said the technical college, as well as other institutions, are waiting to see how the proposed changes will impact students.
“Any changes that would reduce (financial aid) access will impact them, but we have yet to see what those changes will actually be,” she said. “Support of access through financial means is critical.”
If the six-year rule means an uninterrupted six years of enrollment since accepting a Pell Grant, that could affect students who have to take a break from their education for a variety of reasons, including medical situations, Perry said.
“Our hope is that students aren’t penalized for those types of things,” she said.
Prieto said the majority of students who leave before graduating on time leave because of situations outside of their control. He said many may come back to school years later.
“It’s to a student’s and institution’s advantage for a student to graduate as soon as possible, but I think students already have a lot of motivation to do that,” Prieto said.
Higher education institutions that offer federal financial aid must follow regulations, Perry said.
“We work really hard to be compliant with the federal government and will continue to do so regardless of where this legislation ends,” she said. “Access and opportunity are the core of student success, so we always hope any and all regulations are student-friendly.”
Perry said York Technical College has a 90 percent rate of job placement or students getting into schools to continue their education.
“The return on investment of that financial access is great for the development of the community,” she said.