Pell Grants Near Return to Year-Round Eligibility

Posted By Eliana Osborn on June 24, 2016 at 7:49 am
Pell Grants Near Return to Year-Round Eligibility

Pell Grants—federal tuition assistance for low-income students—have a dollar limit each year, regardless of your school costs. That limit currently is $5,815. In addition to the dollar limit, however, Pell Grants currently can be used only two semester during a school year. A three-year experiment to make Pell Grants available year-round, not just for two semesters, ended in 2011 because of budget concerns. Now, the Senate has moved forward on a bill to restore the program.

The 2017 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Bill was sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this month. For the past seven years, no bipartisan funding bill has come out of Labor and HHS so this represents a big step forward. In addition to significant funding for the National Institutes of Health, the bill would restore year-round Pell Grants.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., explained the committee’s thinking behind the bill in a press release: “We restored year-round Pell Grants to expand eligibility and flexibility for an estimated one million students to receive an additional grant award during an academic year.”

This is how year-round Pell works. A student is awarded a certain amount of money to be split over two semesters of full-time attendance (pro-rated if only enrolled on a part-time basis). Students who want to accelerate their course of study and move toward graduation quicker can take summer semester courses and receive more Pell funds. This summer money would not count against a student’s award for the following fall term.

The Funding Year 2017 bill overall provides less money to the Department of Education, separate from changes to Pell. The two-semester Pell amount is increased for 2017-18 school year to $5,935. For those taking advantage of the year-round program, funds are capped at 150% of that amount, essentially breaking it into three equal chunks.

With graduation rates getting so much attention, an incentive to take more classes and earn a degree on a shorter timeline is one solution. President Obama has also proposed a Pell Grant bonus for students who take 15 credit hours per semester, up from the 12 required to maintain full-time status. Motivated students who are able to stay at school and not save money over the summer may even be able to graduate in less than four years.

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) notes that continuous attendance—without stopping for summer and starting again in the fall—can help students stay in school. For those dealing with multiple obligations such as work and family, year-round Pell also means a chance to make up for lower credit loads other semesters. If the 2017 Labor-HHS bill passes, the benefits will be widespread, especially for the most vulnerable students.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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