Eligibility changes could cut Pell Grants at MSU

Without a Pell Grant, Hanna Reed wouldn’t be able to call herself a Spartan.

“If I didn’t get enough financial aid, I wouldn’t be coming to MSU,” the psychology sophomore said.
Reed’s not alone. Thousands of students across the country utilize federally-funded Pell Grants, or money generally granted to students from low-income families. But after new governmental eligibility restrictions, recent studies show Pell Grant funding is at an all-time low.

A study released this week from the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center found changes in Pell Grant eligibility decreased enrollment at colleges and universities in the southern region of the U.S.

MSU financial experts are questioning if similar results could take effect at MSU.

Pell Grants are issued on a need basis, and many eligible students come from low-income families. The full Pell award is $5,500.

MSU distributed more than $39.3 million in Pell Grants to 8,685 students in 2010, according to the MSU Office of Financial Aid.

Congressional budgeting battles resulted in changes to Pell Grant eligibility in 2011.

The federal government reduced the time allotted for students to use the grants to fund a full-time college education from 18 to 12 semesters, or about six years to four, and eliminated grants for summer semesters.

Further changes in Pell Grants could lower funding for students who make $23,000 a year, both dependent and independent of parents.

“Congress and presidential administrations have been unable or unwilling to increase the maximum award to keep the purchasing power of the Pell Grant constant over the years,” MSU College of Education Dean Donald Heller said.

Heller said eliminating Pell Grants would be “catastrophic” for lower-income students who rely on Pell Grants to make it through the academic year, such as Reed.

He said the demographic’s graduation rates and college enrollment would plummet.

Val Meyers, associate director of MSU’s Office of Financial Aid, said funding issues are cyclical.

The state government spends less on higher education funding, so universities have to raise tuition to ensure they have enough money to operate.

In turn, the federal government grants less money in Pell Grants, she said.

Gigi Jones, director of research for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said a decline in Pell Grant funding could leave students unable to afford four-year public university tuition, but community colleges would see enrollment increases.

Pell Grants currently are paying for the smallest portion of college tuition in history, a possible result of rising tuition rates, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

As college tuition rises, Pell Grants haven’t been able to keep up. These grants covered 77 percent of the cost of attending a public four-year university between 1979-80. That percentage fell between 2010-11 to 36 percent, according to data collected by The New York Times.

Meyers said a possible explanation for decreasing Pell Grant eligibility to 12 semesters is to encourage students to graduate on time.

However, the change likely will negatively affect students who change their major while working toward an undergraduate degree.

The credits from the first major won’t always count toward earning a degree in the new major, and the students still only have 12 semesters worth of Pell Grant funding.

As someone who has experienced the benefits of the grants firsthand, Reed said the government shouldn’t need to think too hard about protecting Pell Grants.

“If anything, they should spend more money on it because there are a lot of people that want to go to college and really should, but their financial situation kind of holds them back,” she said.

Jones said she doesn’t see Pell Grants becoming a thing of the past, but she’s not sure the government will increase funding anytime soon, especially with states facing consistent budgeting issues.

“I haven’t seen where tuitions have gone down substantially to catch up,” she said.
“That’s just part of the reality we’re living in now.”

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