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A Summer Without Pell

by Libby A. Nelson, Inside Higher Ed

WASHINGTON -- By the standards of most federal financial aid programs, the year-round Pell Grant had a short and uneventful life. The three-year experiment -- which let students receive two of the need-based grants in one year to help pay for summer classes -- was killed off by bipartisan agreement in last year’s federal budget.

But concern about the program’s elimination has lingered. More than a year after the last summer grants were distributed, colleges are worried that ending the program could have lingering effects on college completion and enrollment. Summer enrollments at many community colleges, as well as at some public institutions, have decreased this year -- the first full summer without the year-round Pell Grant, which ended July 1, 2011.

In some ways, the continuing outcry over the program’s end is unexpected. Unlike many of the recent cuts to student loans and Pell Grants, President Obama suggested ending the program, cutting its $8 billion appropriation in his budget request. At the time, the administration’s overriding goal was preserving the maximum grant of $5,550. Officials, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, described cutting the second Pell Grant as a tough but necessary sacrifice.

In its budget justifications, the department said that the program was proving more expensive than anticipated, and cited "significant concerns" that year-round Pell Grants hadn't increased college completion rates as much as might have been hoped. "In light of the extraordinary costs of this initiative, and before any additional costs are incurred, the Administration believes it is prudent to thoroughly study whether the benefits generated are sufficient to justify the expense," department officials wrote.

At the time, with the focus on preserving the maximum Pell Grant, that rationale was largely accepted, with little outcry from colleges and student advocates.

But more than a year later, the existential threat to Pell Grants appears to have faded; the proposed House of Representatives budget, which in recent years has called for deeper cuts, would increase the Pell Grant maximum in 2013. This summer, with many more students denied the second Pell Grants, colleges have started to worry.

At the University of Texas-Pan American, where more than two-thirds of students are on Pell Grants, administrators say the additional summer grant helped the college’s six-year graduation rate increase from 36 percent to 42 percent (higher if students who transfer are included) over two years.

“It just opened up the floodgates for the kids because they could go to summer school,” says Robert S. Nelsen, the university’s president. “It made a tremendous difference.”

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