Bring Back Year-Round Pell Grants

February 9, 2015
Bill DeBaun, Program Analyst and MorraLee Keller, Director of Technical Assistance

A new report from the New America Foundation says that the year-round Pell Grant program, which enjoyed just two year of funding in 2009 and 2010, got an undeserved early demise and continues to suffer from misconceptions but is actually sound policy worth funding. The program came and went so quickly that we barely had time to understand the regulations and explain them to our students. All we knew is that the program provided a great opportunity to speed up progress towards degrees and/or allow students to enroll for courses that helped them stay on target towards a degree. But by the time we just started to understand all the rules, it disappeared.  

Claims that year-round Pell cost too much and did not spur students to accelerate their degree programs, among others, were overblown, according to the report’s authors. Fortunately, there are a number of proposals in Congress that would bring year-round Pell back in some form, including the FAST Act.

The report, in addition to being a great explainer on both the traditional and year-round Pell grants, delves into how the program functioned. To qualify for one of these grants, a student had to “attempt coursework that counted toward a second school year within a single school year.” A student could then receive a Pell grant equal to up to the amount received during one semester of the normal academic year.

The authors claim that the year-round Pell program was “not the gross incompetence, abuse, or ill-designed policy that many believed plagued the original program…Rather, the year-round program was buffeted by the same forces that caused every other part of the Pell Grant program to rise in cost: Enrollment surged due to a severe economic recession; and for the same reason, families’ weakened financial situations qualified them for larger grants.”

Allowing students to accelerate their academic program using year-round Pell could be very beneficial. As the authors note, “Research shows that academic momentum and credit accumulation matter a great deal in determining whether students graduate. The year-round Pell Grant can thus help more students engage in completion-oriented behavior by taking more courses and fewer breaks between semesters.”

For a lot of very right reasons, education stakeholders and the federal government now have a laser focus on getting students to enter and COMPLETE their degree programs. As reauthorization of the Higher Education Act approaches, this concept deserves another chance. Congress has already taken the best step to ensure that spending cannot go wild by limiting students to the equivalent of 12 fulltime semesters of Pell Grant. This paper recommends treating the summer term as a separate entity when making awards. This straightforward concept seems simple enough for all to understand. With the lifetime maximum in place, year-round Pell would allow our students to progress towards their degree in the manner that works best for them. Our student profile has changed. The majority of students doesn’t go fulltime during the academic year and go home for their summer job. Progressing towards degree completion during the summer is an amazing alternative.  

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