Changes to the federal Pell grant program already are affecting some college students.
Changes to the program, which provides financial aid to low-income college students, took effect this summer.
Stricter financial benchmarks and fewer semesters of Pell grant eligibility are among the changes.
Students can receive full or partial Pell grants based on a U.S. Department of Education formula that considers the number of family members and income to determine eligibility. The formula figures how much a student’s family is expected to contribute to education costs.
Under the new rules, the income benchmark for families to qualify for a zero expected family contribution dropped from $32,000 to $23,000.
Ben Baker, director of student financial services at the University of North Alabama, said that drop means even if the income level is the same as a year ago and the number of people in the household is the same, students could receive less aid.
“There are a good number of students that fall into that range,” Baker said. “These students will still be eligible for Pell grant funds, but just not eligible for as much.
“There are going to be students who are going to be impacted financially by this change. The question they have to answer now is: Are there other financial resources available to pay their costs to attend college.”
Pell grants are awarded to part-time and full-time students at both two-year and four-year institutions.
An issue for community colleges is the elimination of eligibility for “ability-to-benefit” students. Previously, students without a high school diploma or GED could receive Pell grant funds if they scored high enough on a placement test. That is no longer the case. Glenda Colagross, vice president of instruction at Northwest-Shoals Community College, said those potential students are encouraged to take the GED exam.
Northwest-Shoals offers free GED classes, but there is a charge to take the exams. Colagross said the cost of that exam is going up next year.
Also, under the new rules, students can only receive a Pell grant for the equivalent of 12 full-time semesters. Previously, the equivalent of 18 full-time semesters was the maximum. The kicker for that new rule is it is retroactive.
That means some students have already exhausted their lifetime eligibility.
“We have a student who attended UNA more than 30 years ago and is now attending again,” Baker said. “If he received Pell grant funds then, that would count against his current eligibility.”
Colagross said less eligibility also comes into play for students at the community college level.
“For a lot of our students, this is not their first ball game,” she said. “Some of them go to a university first and for one reason or another, come back to us.”
Others, she said, will complete one degree program at the community college and, either immediately or years later, return to school for a different program. That is particularly prevalent in the school’s career technical education programs.
“Students want and need to be multi-skilled in the workforce,” she said. “Sometimes their employers send them back to school to get another skill, but sometimes they do it for themselves to help get better jobs.”
If they don’t have enough Pell grant eligibility remaining to complete another program, Colagross said that could discourage students from becoming more educated.
“(The changes) limit the opportunities students have,” she said. “I think everyone should be able to go to school. I hate the idea of limiting education.”
The Alabama Commission on Higher Education has charged the University of Alabama Education Policy Center with studying the impact of the new rules on higher education in Alabama.
According to the state commission on higher education, in fall 2010, 98,103 students in Alabama’s public two- and four-year colleges received Pell grants totalling $454,896,544.
“The figures represent a significant part of Alabama’s college students who will be greatly impacted by the reduction in funds,” said Tim Vick, director of operations and fiscal services at the Alabama Commission on Higher Education.
Baker said the changes force more responsibility on students to balance their education needs and their financial means. He said students taking minimum course loads or who are prone to dropping classes midway through the semester, are more likely to exceed the semester limit of Pell grant eligibility.
But taking more credit hours, costs more, he said.
“It is going to be very important, during the academic advising process, that students plan their schedules carefully,” he said.
Colagross said faculty members and higher education administrators are being more proactive with students to try to ensure their success.
“We are talking to our students and advisors about retention,” she said. “When a student comes in and wants to drop a class, we want to make sure they’ve tried tutoring and other things before they drop the class because they are using up a chip.”
Jennifer Edwards can be reached at 256-740-5754 or jennifer.edwards@TimesDaily.com.