A-Pell-and-a-Half Is Enough

Why Congress should cap the year-round Pell Grant

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Hope springs eternal for the fate of the year-round Pell Grant.

The year-round Pell Grant, which allows students to continue accessing their Pell funding even after the semester has ended, rather than having to pause until the start of the next academic year, was first implemented in the 2009-10 school year. But its implementation coincided with a large shortfall in the Pell Grant program and it was eliminated as a cost-saver shortly thereafter, in 2011.

There’s good reason to believe it might come back. Since 2011, the Pell Grant program’s finances have stabilized as college enrollment slipped back toward pre-recession levels. Evidence from MDRC has demonstrated that summer scholarships increase enrollment year-round, credit attainment, and even college completion. And lawmakers from both parties--including Senators Alexander (R-TN) and Murray (D-WA), the chair and ranking member of the Senate education committee; Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI); and current and former Secretaries of Education Betsy DeVos and John King--have supported year-round Pell, seeing it as a way to meet the needs of today’s students by granting additional flexibility.

But lawmakers should think carefully about how they structure the grant in its next iteration. Rather than allowing students to receive two full grants in a single award year, they should cap the amount a Pell Grant recipient can earn at an extra half-grant for the year.

There are a couple of reasons to make this change. First and foremost, it’s exceedingly unlikely a school can squeeze two full years’ worth of learning into a single year. Under current law, a student can only receive one Pell Grant per academic year, and an academic year can be no less than 30 weeks long. But real learning takes time; the only legitimate way to squeeze 60 weeks of learning into the 52 weeks in the year would be to create ultra-intensive courses. Instead,  looking to soak up the extra Pell funding, colleges could create sham intensive course periods that give students extra credits for less learning. That kind of abuse is unfair to taxpayers, irresponsible on the part of the college, and most of all, hurts students who think they’re getting a quality college education out of the deal.

The second reason is due to another policy change made since year-round Pell was eliminated. In 2012, Congress narrowed its 18-semester limit on students’ ability to receive Pell Grants to just 12 semesters--six years--and made it retroactive to include past Pell Grant recipients. That limitation has created problems for students who have moved in and out and across colleges, sometimes using Pell faster than they can accrue credits that will apply towards their degrees.

Lifetime eligibility is prorated by the student’s attendance; someone who attends half-time uses up only a half-semester’s worth of his limit. But if a student can receive two full years’ worth of Pell in a single academic year, he might conceivably exhaust his entire Pell fund in just three years.

Instead, capping the amount of Pell funding a student is eligible for at 150% of his annual maximum--or one-and-a-half Pell Grants per year--creates an extra barrier to schools looking to abuse the system by squeezing extra credits into less time without ensuring quality learning experiences; stabilizes the costs of the program; and reduces the risk to students that they burn through their Pell Grant eligibility too quickly. As members of Congress put pen to paper, they should keep this in mind. A better design can only help increase the longevity of the program beyond the two-year run it got from Congress last time around.

Author:

Clare McCann is the deputy director for federal higher education policy with New America's Education Policy program. She previously served as a senior adviser on higher education policy at the U.S. Department of Education.