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Posted at 6:46 PM ET, 03/ 5/2011

Guest post: Year-round Pell Grants are a lifeline

By Daniel de Vise

Here is a guest post from Vinton Thompson, president of the Metropolitan College of New York.

The House majority has voted for large cuts in Pell Grant support for low-income college students. These cuts would be disastrous for many students attending urban institutions and should be opposed. But lost in the discussion of these draconian cuts for all recipients of maximum Pell support is another Pell cut proposal that would target some of our nation's most deserving students. Vinton Thompson-MCNY-red background.jpg

President Obama's administration proposes to end year-round Pell Grants, which support students who go to school all year. This program, only a year and a half old, has given a lifeline to hardworking, non-traditional adult students. It supports their efforts to earn a life-changing B.A. faster and more efficiently than is possible in the traditional two-semester academic year that evolved in another era to serve young residential students.

In academic year 2009-2010, 666 students at Metropolitan College of New York, a small, nonprofit urban commuter institution in Manhattan, received Pell Grants. One hundred fourteen of these students relied on year-round Pell Grants. One is Khassaundra Whitley, who presently works as a teacher's aide. She began her studies in Summer Semester 2010, planning to become a school teacher or social worker. To meet the requirements for a position that is opening at her current workplace, she needs to obtain her bachelor's degree within the next year and a half. MCNY's year-round, three full-semester academic calendar offers her the opportunity to accomplish this goal. But to complete her bachelor's degree on this tight schedule she is relying on year-round Pell. Without it she will not be able to meet her goal on deadline.

Or take the case of Sabrina Soto, another student who first enrolled in Summer Semester 2010. She has two children, attends school full-time and works in a mental health facility. She needs her bachelor's degree to qualify for promotion to supervisor. Thanks to year-round Pell, the New York State Tuition Assistance Program and some transfer credits, she has already completed her associate's degree and is hard at work on her bachelor's degree. Year-round Pell will make it possible for her to attend during Summer Semester 2011. Sabrina believes that being able to earn her degree quickly and without interruption is important to her success.

If year-round Pell comes to an end, dedicated students like Khassaundra and Sabrina will have to slow down their educations or go deeper into debt. In the first case, students' dreams and higher-order contributions to the economy will be postponed (a postponement that may go on indefinitely if interruptions lead to loss of momentum and dropping out of school). In the second case, greater debt leads to greater risk of loan default. Neither outcome is in the students' or the nation's interest.

The administration contends that year-round Pell has not accelerated completion of bachelor's degrees. No data has been offered to support this position. It is unlikely that only 18 months of experience would make it possible to do a thoughtful evaluation of this program, given that it takes a minimum of 16 months to earn a two-year associate degree going year-round. The administration also contends that the program has proved unexpectedly popular, an odd argument for discontinuation. Instead, the strong demand indicates that year-round Pell grants have met a real need in the target low-income student population.

Mr. Obama has made increasing college graduation rates a national priority. Rescinding year-round Pell grants would undercut this effort. Why target a group of students who are especially diligent and support-worthy to bear a disproportionate impact of national budget cuts? Surely there are better alternatives to share the inevitable pain.

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By Daniel de Vise  | March 5, 2011; 6:46 PM ET
Categories:  Access, Aid, Finance, Public policy  | Tags:  Obama Pell cuts, Pell Grants, Pell funding, student aid colleges  
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