Published on 2013/04/26
AUDIO | Making Pell Grants Work for Adults
Adults who have received Pell Grants do not receive the support necessary to ensure their post-secondary decision is the right one, nor are there mechanisms in place to encourage them to complete their degree program in a timely manner. The College Board, however, seeks to rectify that.

The following interview is with Kathie Little, senior advisor on student aid policy at the College Board. The College Board recently released a report analyzing the most significant problems with the current Pell Grant system and looking for ways it could be improved in the future. In this interview, Little discusses the findings of that report and shares her thoughts on what changes need to be made at the federal level to make the Pell Grants specifically, and higher education generally, work better for adults both in the short term and the long term.

1. What are the most significant issues with the Pell Grants, as they are today, when it comes to adult students?

The Pell Grant program, which began way back in 1972, was developed as a program to help high school students from low-income backgrounds enroll in college, and I think many people still think of the program that way. But in actuality, in the most recent year, about 60 percent of Pell Grant recipients were independent from their families. In other words, we don’t know anything about their family background; we only look at their own income when we’re determining eligibility.

We think that this one-size-fits-all program does not really work all that well for either younger students or older students. We know that older students often have very different educational goals, many of them are juggling family responsibilities, they’re juggling work, they’re juggling school responsibilities, and they’re most interested in getting the credentials they need in order to get back in the workforce or to earn a higher living wage to help support their family. And, so, their needs are different, their challenges are different and we think that the program could work better for them.

Currently, the way the program works for all students – young and older – students apply, they complete the Free Application for Student Federal Aid (FASFA) and they receive a voucher back which tells them how much eligibility for Pell Grant they have — and they don’t get any guidance at all about how to use this voucher, what academic program will work well for them, what institution will work well for them, how to predict outcomes. And, so, this is a big problem and we think that particular thing, particularly for adult students, needs to be fixed. We have some recommendations about how to do that.

Also, the system is very complex. We have a complex application, the FASFA, we have a complex eligibility determination, so it’s very hard for students to estimate how much Pell Grant they might receive. And we apply … a need analysis system which looks at resources — parental resources or student resources — to determine their eligibility. But this need-analysis system was really developed to evaluate the resources of parents of younger students and it’s kind of been modified to work for older students but it doesn’t really work very well at all.

The last problem is that the program today is not really designed to encourage timely completion. We know that students who start their education late in life are much less likely to complete. For example, Pell Grant recipients, who began their education in 2003-04, who began it when they were age 30 or older — over 50 percent of them did not complete. They don’t have a degree, they don’t have a certificate and they’re not still enrolled. So, that’s a problem … because we’re investing these resources and yet we’re not helping students actually complete their educational goals. So, we have some ideas about how to repair that problem.

2. One of the suggestions raised in the College Board’s study was to create separate tracks for adult students and traditional-age students when it comes to applying for Pell Grants. How would this separate track approach better serve adults?

We think that we can greatly simplify the system for adult students. Using the traditional need-analysis system, where we’re looking at the past year’s income, does not really work for many adult students. Often times, what they earned in the last year has nothing to do with what they’re going to earn while they’re in school.

And, so, we are proposing a very, very simple eligibility determination where we would look at the student and the student’s family income relative to family size. And we would determine, based on income and family size, whether or not they would be eligible to receive a Pell Grant. Also, we would ask them to apply only once before beginning a program. … For adult students we’re proposing that they have to apply only once and their eligibility is determined at that point and they will continue to receive the Pell Grant as long as they make satisfactory academic progress. So, we think this will make the system much easier for adult students, much more predictable for adult students, much more transparent for adult students. All of those things, we think, should help with completion.

3. What are a few measures the federal government could put into place to improve completion rates among adult Pell Grant recipients?

One thing that we think is very important is advising, guidance, particularly for adult students. Younger students who are coming directly from high school have access to school counselors; I mean, they are not always great, but the counselors are there and their friends are going through this process as well.

But adult students are usually … on their own. They think they need to go back to school. They might see an ad on TV about a particular school or listen to an ad on the radio and they might think, “Oh, that sounds good!” But they have not gotten good advising about whether their particular skills would work well in a particular program, whether a particular institution produces outcomes that will meet the student’s goals, whether a particular program is the right program in terms of job outlook after completion.

So, what we have recommended is that, before enrolling in a particular institution, adult students who are Pell Grant recipients should receive advising about all of these things from an independent third party. Not from a college, not from a school — because [colleges] and schools have a particular interest in enrolling the students — but from someone who is independent and has the student’s best interests at heart. And, we think this advising should include assessment of the student’s skills, guidance through … institutional choice and program choice, as well as information about outcomes. What would the student likely be expected to earn after completing a credential?

Then, we think the student, once enrolled, should continue to receive good solid – both academic and career – advising from the institution that the student has selected and be required to do that as a Pell Grant recipient. We also believe that institutions should receive supplemental funding to help them develop programs that would improve retention and completion. Not just for adult students, but for all Pell Grant recipients. And, so, we have some proposals about how to do that.

And, finally, I’d like to describe this proposal we have for developing an awarding structure that would encourage the student to complete in a timely way. We would base the award amount that the student receives, the Pell Grant award amount, on the number of credit hours for which the student enrolls. And this would allow the student to go at his or her own pace, but it would also encourage the student to complete more quickly because the more credit hours in which the student enrolls, the higher the Pell Grant award would be. And, currently, that’s not really the case.

And, so, the student could go for two semesters plus the summer term; currently the student is not allowed to get a Pell Grant in the summer term. So, we think that all of these things put together would really help adult students, in particular, complete at a higher rate than they are doing currently.

4. Is there anything you’d like to add about changes to the Pell Grant system that would improve the system and completion rates for adult students?

… Where this was sort of a long-term view of how to improve the Pell Grant program, there are aspects of our recommendations that could be legislated in the short-term and that could make a difference: the recommendations to simplify the system, the recommendations to change the way Pell Grant awards are structured to encourage timely competition.

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Readers Comments

Stephanie Ritchie 2013/04/26 at 11:03 am

It sounds like a lot of the recommendations for the report will help bring more clarity not only to adult students but to traditional-age students as well. The federal financial aid system has been made to be too complicated and, as a result, this may sometimes deter students from applying for financial assistance. Any steps to make the process easier to understand is a positive development.

Dan Jones 2013/04/26 at 12:14 pm

On the issue of having different eligibility criteria for adult and traditional-age students, what are the criteria you’re proposing to first of all put people into one of those categories? I’m thinking of the example of an 18-year-old parent, who is of the “traditional” college age but who likely has responsibilities/demands that are more similar to older students. The criteria for differentiating among different groups of students must be made clear to avoid any more confusion or negative impacts on students.

Eugene Partnoy 2013/04/26 at 2:13 pm

It’s promising to see that the College Board is looking to revamp the Pell Grant system. We’ve all known for a long time that the system was not helpful for adult students, but this is the first I’m seeing where we’re clearly identifying the issues and how to rectify them. The real test will come when some of these recommendations begin to be implemented (which I hope will happen soon). Congratulations on a good first step!

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