Pell Grants: New rules may limit access to education

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The government may be making it even harder to earn a college education these days. Unfortunately, the population that will likely be most affected is African-Americans.

Thousands of college students who are taking more than six years to obtain their undergraduate degree will now have their Pell Grants cut for the next school year after a $1 trillion budget bill passed in Congress before Christmas.

Although the bill keeps the maximum Pell Grant award at $5,550, it seeks to save $11 billion over the next decade by reducing the maximum number of years that a student can receive the grant from nine to six. The grants would then cover less than one third of the cost to receive an education in the United States.

Vice President Pauline Abernathy of the Institute for College, Access, and Success told theGrio that with the passing of the bill, Pell Grants will now cover a smaller share of college programs than they have in the history of the grant program.

“Congress didn’t just reduce the number of years students can receive Pell Grants, it also imposed the new limit retroactively,” she said. “This means that more than 100,000 students currently receiving Pell Grants will no longer be eligible for them next year, including those who are near graduation. This is like changing the rules in the middle of a game—and then scoring the entire game based on the new rules. After years of studies, students who are depending on Pell Grants to cross the finish line will suddenly be sidelined.”

Yet this is not the only change that will impact low-income students.

In addition, the bill will reduce the income level under which a student will automatically be qualified to obtain the maximum Pell Grants from $30,000 to $23,000.

“There are so many students who have worked hard for many years, and now many of them are very close to completing,” Abernathy told theGrio. “Many of them are disproportionately African-Americans.”

Abernathy and many other experts said that the bill is a huge step in the wrong direction. They believe it will change the entire trajectory of many students who crave to not just get a higher education, but to make something of their lives.

“A college degree is more important today for young people than it was for previous generations,” she said. “This is harmful and counterproductive, especially since getting a college education has gotten even harder to afford.”

Historically, Pell Grants — which do not have to be paid back — were originally created more than 40 years ago to help many of the nation’s most deserving low-income students.
In recent years, they have been offered to more than a million low-income students to help them pay for the increasing costs of attending college.

More and more students need Pell Grants since the tuition and fees to attend college has dramatically increased over the years. According to CNN Money: “Tuition and fees at colleges and universities continue to skyrocket, increasing more than 400% since 1982 — more than 4 times the rate of inflation.”

In fact, data collected by the College Board, revealed that as more low-income students have enrolled in college during the weak economy, spending on Pell Grants has exploded. Indeed, it has nearly doubled in just over two years to $34.8 billion.

For example, the data revealed that from 2008 to 2009, 6.2 million students received Pell Grants averaging $2,945 each, while from 2010-2011 more than 9.1 million students received grants averaging $3,828.

Dr. Vinton Thompson, who is president of the Metropolitan College of New York, told theGrio he is quite aware of how much Pell Grants are needed for students to receive their college degree.

“More than 60 percent of our undergraduate students receive Pell Grants and more than 50 percent of our students who receive them are African-American,” he said. “This financial support is truly needed by our deserving students who want to be able to complete their studies at MCNY.”

Thompson further emphasized that the cuts in Pell Grants mainly disproportionately impact minority students, and students from economically challenged backgrounds.

“The proposed cut backs will cause an unreasonable burden to many, especially part-time students and ‘ability to benefit’ students,” he told theGrio. “It will cause them to slow down or stop their education and go deeper into debt. I would hate to see the door closed on these committed students as the grants will wipe out this entire category.”

Unfortunately, experts continued to stress to theGrio that a broader number of these committed students are African-Americans who receive Pell Grants to help pay for college.
Political Strategist of Empire Government Strategies and a former New York State Assemblyman, Arthur Jerry Kremer said he believes that the bill is a direct assault on the African-American community by a group of very narrow-minded legislatures.

“It is a cruel, heartless cut done by people who don’t understand why Pell grants were created, and the need that young people have to make a future for themselves by receiving a higher education,” Kremer told theGrio. “You just don’t attack the future of young people who want to have a future.”

Indeed, other experts expressed how much the bill will impact the dreams of numerous young African-Americans.

Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor Jr. guides nearly 300,000 African-Americans students to attend universities across the country.

He told theGrio that he and his colleagues spend a lot of time trying to educate their junior and senior high school students on the importance of going to college, and on the financial implications that attending college can bring.

“With this legislation, they are making every reason for a person not to pursue a higher education,” Taylor said. “Going to college is the biggest opportunity for the black and brown community, especially since so many of the students are the first generation to attend college.”

Taylor also told theGrio an estimation of how many African-American students nationally would be impacted by the Pell Grants cuts.

He asserted to a 2009 U.S. Department of Education study in which the National Center for Education found that African-Americans made up 24 percent of graduate recipients, and 41 percent of Pell recipients in more than six years.

“If 41 percent of the people who receive Pell in over six years were African-Americans, then this new bill will have a major impact on decreasing a big slot of that population,” he said. “This is especially true since the population is increasingly browning.”

Although TMCF cannot provide funding to every single student who applies for scholarships for it, Taylor said students can still pay for their tuition at public universities with Pell Grants.

“The good news is that the government did not completely cut the Pell eligibility amount, because that would have made it impossible for any student to even attend a state school,” he said. “Therefore, if a student is eligible for a Pell Grant and received the full $5,500, then his or her tuition and fees should be covered.”

For students who want to attend college or complete their education, Taylor encourages them to realize that they can still pursue higher education even with the cuts in Pell grants. He recommends that they consider attending a public school in the state that they grew up, since it is more affordable.

“Student loans start kicking in the day you graduate, not six months later,” he told theGrio. “Therefore, students need to become more financially literate about the investment they are proposing in a college education. They need to start talking about college much earlier, and also factoring in the increased costs as a result of these legislation changes.”

TMCF is not the only institution greatly trying to help African-Americans pay for college during this rough time.

For example, earlier this year reports surfaced that the United Negro College Fund was greatly intensifying its efforts this year of raising $5 million dollars to help minority students who are endanger of not graduating pay for their final year of school.

UNCF raises $5 million in scholarships through its CESA (Campaign for Emergency Student Aid) Program, which was initiated in 2009 to help students.

While many, like Taylor and UNCF, continue to help students pay for their college education, others hope that the government will reconsider the bill in upcoming budget discussions scheduled for February.

“We hope that they will review this issue, because we seriously need to increase our investment in Pell Grants and the number of students who attend college,” Vice President Abernathy said. “I just don’t believe that the members of Congress are aware that this bill will hinder numerous students from finishing school.”