Pell Grant cuts threaten futures of most vulnerable college students

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by Devon Westray

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As the 2016-2017 school year approaches so do concerns regarding Pell Grants.

College students nationwide are hoping that the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate can come up with a year-end funding bill that includes money for year-round Pell Grants—money that could be used to cover the cost of summer courses.

Two bills regarding Pell Grants have already made it through committees in both the House and Senate. The Senate’s bill is the only one that contains year-round Pell Grants.

If Pell grants cannot be used for summer courses, ultimately low-income students may have to take extra semesters to finish their schooling or, perhaps, may have to drop out entirely.

Chelsey Herrig is a recent graduate of Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota, and is also the outgoing Chair of the National Education Association’s student program, which represents thousands of students and future educators across the nation. While in school, she learned the hard way about Pell Grants in relation to summer courses.

At one point there was a summer class I needed to take,” said Herrig. “I just assumed Pell Grants were year round so I signed up for the class. But then I was told I owed $2,000 out of pocket. I needed that class to graduate on time. The Pell Grant would have helped lessen the amount of debt I now owe.

According to the U.S Department of Education, more than 90 percent of those receiving Pell Grants are from families that earn less than $50,000 a year. Fifty-six percent of those families earn less than $20,000. Nearly three-quarters of Pell Grant recipients have no savings or cash on hand.

During the 2009-2010 school year, Pell Grants could be used to cover summer courses. However, in 2011, the Pell Grant program was cut back to make up for an $11 billion dollar shortfall. After that, they were not awarded for summer courses.

Hirono
U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii

In a recent letter to the House, NEA expressed disappointment with the House Appropriations Bill, which did not include funding for year-round Pell Grants.

“(We oppose) the $1.3 billion cut to Pell Grant discretionary funding, although we acknowledge the maximum Pell award will increase from $5,815 to $5,935,” said NEA’s Government Relations Director Mary Kusler in a letter sent to House members. “We are disappointed that the bill does not restore year-round Pell Grants as the Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations bill does and hope this will be addressed in a year-end funding bill.”

“Hardworking students in Hawaii and across the country should be able to use Pell Grants to help pay for college year-round, regardless of their schedules, work, or family commitments,” said U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, who sponsored legislation in the Senate to expand the Pell Grant program .

“Students who continue their studies year-round have a greater chance of finishing college on time,” continued Hirono. “The year-round Pell Grant program helped nearly 2 million students get ahead—including 3,000 in Hawaii—until Congress ended the program in 2011. My Year-Round Pell Grant Restoration Act would bring back this crucial benefit, and I will continue to work until it passes Congress.”

“If everybody could take advantage of Pell Grants year round, including in the summer, that would allow students to complete their college education quicker and with fewer loans and smaller student loan debt,” said Herrig, who is hoping lawmakers will include money for year-round Pell Grants in a year-end funding bill.

“Year-round Pell Grants fit with the mission of making sure that students and families have a clear pathway to an affordable and quality postsecondary education by allowing students to finish faster or receive their degrees on time,” said Herrig. “That’s a mission all lawmakers should be able to get behind.”

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