Published on 2017/07/31
The EvoLLLution | Year-Round Pell Restoration a Drop in the Bucket When it Comes to Student Access and Attainment
Greater access to higher education is critical for improved postsecondary attainment rates—central to ensuring the health for the American economy—and the restoration of Year-Round Pell Grants represent a key first step in driving the attainment rate up.

On June 20, 2017, the Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced the restoration of Year-Round Pell Grants, with the move set to take effect on July 1, 2017. Year-Round Pell Grants were initially eliminated in 2011 as a cost-saving measure, and over the past six years access advocates have been lobbying for its restoration.

The return of Year-Round Pell Grants is significant for non-traditional students, whose schedules do not necessarily bend to the outdated agrarian postsecondary calendar. Often working and supporting families, these grants allow students to afford to remain enrolled in the spring and summer terms, which previously were not eligible for Pell funding.

However, according to the Lumina Foundation’s Susan Johnson and Zakiya Smith, the restoration of Year-Round Pell Grants only represent a drop in the bucket when it comes to supporting access and success for low-income learners, and they expand on that in this interview.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is the restoration of Year-Round Pell so valuable for today’s students, and why did it take so long to be restored?

Susan Johnson and Zakiya Smith (SJ/ZS): Today’s students need flexible options that allow them to pursue postsecondary learning while also meeting their obligations outside the classroom, like working or caring for family members. Ensuring that Pell Grant funding is available on a consistent basis throughout the year is a critical piece of this flexibility.

Evo: What are some of the most significant roadblocks still standing in the way of low-income student access?

SJ/ZS: Several barriers often plague access for low-income students. First, a lack of understanding of the total cost of college, beyond tuition and fees, can hinder students from making informed decisions about which institution to attend. Despite low tuition and fees at some institutions, low-income students may still have quite a bit to pay for housing, food, transportation and textbooks. Additionally, limited financial aid literacy can impede low-income student access. Students and their families may have inaccurate perceptions about financial aid, which in turn affect their ability to effectively plan for college. Eligibility, perceived complexity of the financial aid system, and limited financial planning, are just a few obstacles that can negatively impact a student’s quest for aid. Finally, student loan debt is higher among low-income students. For instance, students receiving Pell Grant aid are more than twice as likely to have student loans and their average debt is nearly $5,000 higher than non-Pell Grant recipients.

Evo: What more can be done by government leaders at the state and federal levels to ensure low-income students have access to high-quality postsecondary programming?

SJ/ZS: We should pursue student-centric approaches to college affordability that are predictable, transparent, built around a defined benefit, and based on a reasonable contribution of resources available to students and families. We must also grapple with the full cost of pursuing postsecondary education, and understand that the costs of living– food, housing, childcare, transportation– often present a more significant barrier than tuition and fees alone.

Evo: At the institutional level, what role do college and university leaders have to play in improving access to quality higher education for low-income learners?

SJ/ZS: It’s about mission. Leaders must simply be committed to their mission to serve students—all students. State institutions have increasingly turned to out-of-state students who can afford to pay more rather than sufficiently supporting low-income students in their own states. However, with increasing accountability at the state level through funding formulas, institutions are being asked not only to focus on access, but to also focus on persistence and completion—particularly for low-income students.

Evo: How likely is it that these recommended steps for government and higher ed leaders are taken?

SJ/ZS: Policymakers at all levels understand the critical need to provide the talent and skills demanded by our 21st-century economy, and that transparent and affordable postsecondary credentials play a key part of that. Policies that increase the number of Americans completing a high-quality postsecondary credential are embraced by policymakers across the political spectrum because these credentials ultimately lead to good jobs, a strong workforce and a competitive economy.

Increasingly we see leaders in government and higher ed talking about the needs of today’s students and pursuing the kinds of policies that meet these students where they are.

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Key Takeaways

  • Misinformation and lack of information around costs, options and financial aid policy still represent significant barriers to postsecondary access for low-income students.
  • Student centricity must become the watchword for government officials and institutional administrators as leaders at both levels must work to improve access and outcomes for low-income learners.
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