Newswise — AMES, Iowa – The Pell Grant makes it possible for countless students to achieve their goal of earning a college degree. However, changes to the eligibility requirements for the Pell Grant may be limiting, instead of expanding, access to higher education – especially for rural community college students.

Janice Friedel, an associate professor in the School of Education at Iowa State University, helped conduct a survey of financial aid administrators at community colleges in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi. The survey gauged how changes to the Pell Grant – implemented in fall 2012 – impacted enrollment and course-taking patterns.

“The financial aid administrators at the community colleges in those states indicated that the new Pell restrictions had a direct relationship on the drop in their enrollment,” Friedel said.

Financial aid administrators – 100 percent of whom completed the survey – pointed to the fact that 5,000 students in the three southern states lost their Pell Grant eligibility for the 2012 fall semester. More than 17,000 students are expected to face a similar fate throughout the next two terms.

Three of the new restrictions have the greatest impact on rural community colleges, Friedel said. One includes changes to the “Estimated Family Contribution” income levels, which is calculated when students complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The EFC determines if students qualify for the Pell Grant and if so, how much they can receive. Congress changed the maximum EFC level from $32,000 to $23,000.

There are also limits on the lifetime maximum for eligibility. Under the new guidelines, students can only receive the grant for a total of 12 semesters of full-time enrollment. Friedel says that affects community college students who often need to take refresher courses, adding to the amount of time it takes for students to earn a degree.

The third restriction directly impacts colleges that offer certificate programs or short-term training for immediate employment. Friedel said students could qualify for the Pell, even without a diploma or GED, if the financial aid administrator determined the student would benefit from the program. Under the new rules, Congress eliminated that exemption.

“It was clear from the input from those administrators that increased restrictions on the Pell Grant disadvantages students who attend a community college who need to take their program of study over a longer period of time,” Friedel said. “Those restrictions limit their ability to complete a program.”

Presentation to policymakers

Friedel, along with Steve Katsinas from the University of Alabama, and Ed Davis from Mississippi State University, were in Washington, D.C., Feb. 12-13 to present the survey results to the White House Rural Council and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program officers. The presentation was made on behalf of the Rural Community College Alliance.

Members of the alliance also met with Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education. The group wants to make sure policymakers understand the impact grant restrictions have on access to community colleges.

“From their perspective, maintaining the Pell with fewer restrictions advantages the community colleges and their commitment to access,” Friedel said. “The Pell Grant is the most important student financial aid in the nation. It provides access and opportunity to higher education. We’re concerned that increased eligibility requirements will limit access.”

If students can’t attend college or are forced to quit because of the restrictions on financial aid, colleges will see a drop in tuition revenue. Friedel says it’ll create a cycle that adds to the decline in enrollment.

“Because of that drop in revenue, and a decline in state revenues, what do colleges do to close that budget gap? They increase tuition, because of a loss in tuition revenues,” Friedel said.

If tuition goes up, that will make it even more difficult for students to afford community college. Friedel said several policymakers recognized the need to keep community colleges affordable, because the schools are vital to rural communities.

“It’s very important that community colleges have sufficient funds to support those who live and work and make their future in rural communities,” Friedel said.

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