Why We Should Bring Back Summer Pell Grants

Although a full Pell award more than covers two semesters at community colleges, students enrolled in accelerated programs often need to take out loans.

This illustration can only be used with Sophie Quinton's story that ran in the 8/2/2014 magazine.  (National Journal)

At Des Moines Area Community College, in Iowa, it's possible to earn a welding diploma in one year and a nursing degree in two. To graduate on this accelerated time frame, however, students need to take classes during the summer as well as during the school year. But 42 percent of DMACC students receive Pell Grants, and Pell Grants can only be used for two semesters per year — which means if you use them in the fall and spring, you can't use them over the summer. As a result, although a full Pell award more than covers two semesters at DMACC, students enrolled in accelerated programs often need to take out loans.

(Davide Bonazzi)Students got some relief in 2010 and 2011 from a short-lived, additional Pell Grant. But the Obama administration eliminated that Pell Grant — which was known as the "year-round" or "summer" Pell Grant — in 2011, made effective the summer of 2012.

Now lawmakers want to restore year-round access to Pell dollars, albeit through two very different proposals. House Republicans are seeking to turn Pell awards into one six-year grant that students can draw from at any time until the money is spent. Senate Democrats, on the other hand, want to bring back the year-round grant.

Summer study can help students not only to graduate early — but to graduate, period, says Rob Denson, president of DMACC. "We know that students who take more credits and can move through at a faster pace are more likely to finish," he says. A 2009 report from the Institute of Higher Education Leadership & Policy at California State University (Sacramento) found that taking summer courses could keep students on track to graduate.

About 41 percent of undergraduates in the United States currently receive Pell Grants, according to the Education Department. The need-based program has grown as college costs have risen, family finances have weakened, and higher education has become an essential gateway to many middle-income jobs.

Full-time students can receive only one Pell award per year. When Congress tried to solve this problem by allowing students to receive extra Pell funding for summer study, the year-round grant ended up costing much more than lawmakers had anticipated. Hundreds of thousands of students used the grants, and almost a third of the money went to students at pricey, career-oriented for-profit colleges, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2011.

The Obama administration decided to cut the year-round Pell Grant, arguing that degree completion rates hadn't risen enough to justify the expense. That may have been a hasty conclusion: Two years of data aren't enough, argues Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin (Madison).

In any case, lawmakers are now back where they started. Sandy Baum, research professor of education policy at George Washington University's Graduate School of Education and Human Development, thinks Pell awards should be completely restructured. "I would say, you get the same money for taking the 30 credits during the year, no matter how you distribute them," Baum says.

House Republicans' proposal for a "Flex Pell Grant" resembles Baum's idea. Republicans would like to tell students the total amount of Pell funding they're eligible for, then let them spend the money as needed. Senate Democrats worry that "flexibility" really means "cutting funding," because Republicans also want to reduce the total cost of the Pell program.

Both sides, however, seem to agree that some change is needed. The previous experience with year-round grants suggests that seemingly small tweaks to the Pell program can have significant consequences — especially for students' pocketbooks. Says Goldrick-Rab: "It's very clear, on the summer Pell issue, this is about the needs of students."