BILL CRAWFORD: How much Pell funding is enough?

By Bill Crawford

New regulations enacted by Congress in June have stripped Pell Grant eligibility from nearly 3,000 Mississippi students and cut the amount of aid others are receiving,” began the story in The Clarion-Ledger.
As part of its belt tightening, Congress tightened rules and funding for the federal Pell Grant Program that provides need-based grants to students from low-income families. Lifetime access to Pell Grants was reduced from 18 to 12 semesters or six years. Summer school grants were eliminated. Family income levels to qualify for full Pell Grants dropped from $32,000 to $23,000. Students without a GED or diploma became ineligible.
Colleges and universities are screaming, particularly in Mississippi where 72 percent of community college students get full or partial Pell Grants and 49 percent of university students get them.
Wow, cutting these grants sounds bad.
The suddenness of the cuts to students and colleges was not good, but what about the other changes?
While the family income level changed, students can still get substantial Pell Grants with family income of $60,000 or more. It depends on the Expected Family Contribution calculated from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – FASFA that students’ families must complete.
Most students obtain undergraduate degrees, associate degrees and certificates within six years. The new rules provide lifetime access to Pell Grants for six years or 12 semesters, whichever comes first, so this change seems reasonable.
Those students who work and go to school and those taking developmental classes, i.e. those who take longer to complete schooling, may find the changes burdensome. The fairness of eliminating grants for summer semesters could be questioned.
Tightening Pell Grant rules and funding pushes back on a practice by universities and colleges to raise tuition rates each time Congress increased grant levels over the years. Many in Congress believe this practice allowed institutions to avoid finding ways to control rising costs in higher education.
Understand, too, that student loans outstanding, the next choice by low and moderate income students for education funding, have reached an all-time high of nearly $1 trillion. The average loan amount per graduating student is $29,000.
If Congress can withstand the political heat from college and university supporters, pressure will rebound on institutions to both control costs and shorten the time it takes for students to graduate. Another trend has been to add classes to the required core curricula and developmental tracks, causing students stay in college longer.
So, how much is enough?
The ever-growing costs of higher education and how to fund them are serious issues. But, so too is the challenge to control these costs.
Pell grants join farm subsidies, Medicaid, Food Stamps, and more in the “how much is enough” debate.
Reasonable limits and cost controls are direly needed.
Bill Crawford (crawfolk@gmail.com) is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.