Sometimes, a good idea does not work out just right the first time.
Therefore, we try, try and try again before we experience success. The recent bipartisan support for a year-round Pell Grant provides us an opportunity to get it right for many students, especially those attending part time and with fewer financial resources.
For 45 years, the Pell Grant has been the largest and most prominent federal financial aid program.
In 2008, the program included the option of a summer grant in addition to the traditional fall and spring semester grants. The idea was to either give a student a chance to catch up or to accelerate time to degree completion. In either case, a student would be more likely to persist to attaining a degree, which can then lead to an earlier entry into the workforce.
In effect, the student may have one more year of a career because of graduating early or on time. Students completing a degree faster also presents the possibility of completion at less cost — a benefit to student and taxpayers.
Three years later, federal budget constraints unfortunately led to an ending of the summer Pell Grant. My hope is the second incarnation of the summer Pell Grant receives enough time to be evaluated properly for both effectiveness and efficiency. Any step that keeps students on track toward a timely degree merits careful study and evaluation.
Every Pell Grant travels with the student between institutions and preserves choice for each student, making it ideal for summer studies. The earlier program had some unique legislative standards that have been cleared for this trial. For example, there was contradictory language about full-time students — which for most colleges and universities means 24 credits per year and the student’s academic year, which is typically 30 credits. Past regulations — such as guidelines to determine full- and part-time enrollment or if funding was for the student’s sophomore or junior year — made it difficult to administer the program.
The new guidelines for the summer help a student, for example, who needs three or six more credits to advance in class standing to keep up with school requirements. If a student meets the institutional standard for full-time or part-time progress, that should be sufficient. A separate federal standard adds to the confusion for students.
A second improvement in the new legislation lets the student work with the university to pick the award year, as many summer sessions straddle fiscal years that typically begin in July. The previous legislation required a calculation to split the award over the two years, increasing the administrative cost.
The federal government awards Pell Grants based on four factors: financial need; overall cost; full- or part-time enrollment, and whether or not the student attends for the entire academic year. In the end, the maximum award is $5,920 per academic year over 12 semesters. It does not matter for accounting purposes if an institution of higher education charges a student’s summer course this fiscal year or next.
Again, the key point is to get students to complete a degree as effectively and efficiently as possible. A university’s financial aid staff and the student are in the best position to make that a reality.
It’s early July, when we celebrate our nation’s freedom. My hope is that students who want to build strong communities and a strong nation will continue to receive support year-round, including June, July and August. The second version of the summer Pell Grant opens the door to higher education for more of our capable students who need a hand up.
Thomas J. Botzman, Ph.D., is president of Misericordia University in Dallas, the oldest four-year institution of higher education in Luzerne County.