When it comes to Pell Grants, Republicans say the process is too complicated. Their solution would require students to apply one time only for grants that could span six years and allow students to use those grants whenever they want until the money runs out or they finish their degrees. "The idea is that here's the amount of Pell Grant that you're going to be eligible for. You would be able to draw down on it as you needed it," says Kline.
There are a lot of questions about the proposal, which is deliberately vague because committee members are still negotiating details. Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, worries that if all the Pell money — roughly $35,000, in today's dollars — were to become available at once, students would use it on high-priced tuition in the first year and then be unable to finish their studies.
Currently, students must fill out an application each year for a fall and spring semester allotment. The maximum Pell Grant for the 2014-15 school year is $5,730, which can cover full tuition costs at some, but not all, public universities and community colleges. Often, grantees are left short and must take out loans to cover the cost of books and fees. The Republican proposal is intended to let them be more flexible so they might not have to take out loans until later.
The proposal also could give incentives to students to finish college studies early. They could use the flexible Pell Grant to pay for summer courses, which they cannot do now.
There are ways to do that without exhausting all the grant money in one year. Last year, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators proposed a "Pell Well" where students could "draw" funds as needed, with some limits like prorated payments if they didn't take a full slate of classes. Those payments would be available until they graduate or their six-year entitlements ran out.
Rick Hess, an education scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, says the flexible Pell Grant is a good way for conservatives to think about higher-education benefits. "I like the idea that if you decide you want to give grants to people to go to college, you give them what you're going to give them and it's their responsibility to do it."
The problem, Hess says, is that if the student blows all the money before actually getting a degree, he's out of luck. As a country, "we tend to be not very good at the 'out of luck' part," he says. (Besides, giving someone money not to get a degree is just bad policy.)
Politicians like Kline are looking at reforming Pell Grants as a response to the public's sticker shock about $1 trillion in student debt and ever-rising tuitions. The issue has captured the attention of unabashed liberals like Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and tea-party darlings like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Senate colleagues Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., even teamed up on legislation to shrink the daunting Free Application for Federal Student Aid to just two questions.