Published on 2013/08/15

Three Most Important Changes to Pell Grants to Increase Access and Success for Low-Income Adults

Three Most Important Changes to Pell Grants to Increase Access and Success for Low-Income Adults
Providing start-to-finish support for adult students is critical in ensuring Pell Grant funding helps non-traditional students not only begin degree programs, but earn degrees.

The following recommendations are excerpted from Rethinking Pell Grants, a report released in April by the College Board, which focused on how the Pell Grant program could be improved for both younger students and adults. The report was developed by the Rethinking Pell Grants study group, which included researchers with expertise in higher education finance, student aid and workforce development, as well as college administrators and policy analysts. I spoke about this report in a previous interview.

The goal of the group was to propose changes to the Pell Grant program which, if implemented, would improve the program for young people growing up in low- and moderate-income families, while also better serving older adults returning to school to improve their labor market opportunities.

The proposals are designed to recognize the importance of using taxpayer dollars to maximize educational attainment and provide the greatest benefit to larger society.

1. Ensure adults are supported from pre-enrollment to graduation.

Federal Pell Grant rules should encourage adults considering postsecondary education to work with an independent advisor to help them choose an institution and education program that will lead to positive employment outcomes. These advisors should be experts with no conflict of interest related to students’ choices. Counseling should include reliable advice about the kinds of education and training needed to achieve competency in particular occupations and whether the individual student is likely to succeed in this training. Once students have enrolled, postsecondary institutions should provide ongoing academic and career counseling to ensure they are progressing toward credentials that will be of value in their local labor markets.

One-Stop Career Centers might provide the basis for a system of local guidance for adults seeking to improve their labor market prospects. To improve the capabilities of these centers, the federal government should provide supplemental funding for career assessment and counseling services. Benefits resulting from better choices made by students would include increased earnings and tax revenues and reduced unemployment compensation; it is likely the benefits of improved guidance would outweigh the costs.

2. Simplify the student aid process for adult students.

For older students, eligibility for Pell Grants should not be based on detailed financial data or a complicated needs analysis system. Instead, Pell Grants should be available both to long-term disadvantaged adults and to those who are permanently dislocated from jobs they have held for a number of years. Eligibility should be based on an average of three years of income, retrievable from the IRS if the student filed federal tax forms. Adult students should apply for federal student aid only once — before beginning their programs. They would continue to receive funding as long as they made adequate progress in their programs.

3. Provide federal incentives for states to allow students to use income support programs to improve their chances of succeeding in college.

Assuring access to these programs at both the federal and state levels is key to improving outcomes for adult students. Some programs deny funding to people who are in school, pushing them instead into low-wage, dead-end jobs. Providing support for full-time or close-to-full-time students for periods of time adequate for credential completion as a substitute for their labor market participation is critical to student success.

To access the full report from the College Board, please click here.

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Readers Comments

Ryan Loche 2013/08/15 at 8:04 am

It’s time for the federal government to acknowledge their formula that worked before simply won’t do now that the economy and our demographics have changed. Pell Grants in their current format are based on outdated ideas, for example, that a part-time job would provide a student enough income to live on while in school (and receiving some financial aid and holding a loan). It’s time to rethink what we want Pell Grants to accomplish and how we can get there, and Little has provided three sound ideas to start from.

Greg Allen 2013/08/15 at 4:23 pm

I agree with the need to offer support from pre-enrollment to graduation. Students’ situations, particularly their financial ones, tend to change over the period it takes to complete a program, and ongoing counseling is important in helping them make the best decisions for themselves.

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