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Education Department Proposes Extended Timelines, 'Bonus' for Pell Grants

UPDATE

The U.S. Department of Education released a pair of proposals related to Pell Grants designed to ensure that the federal higher education loan program helps more students obtain college degrees more quickly. Whether those proposals, released Tuesday, will succeed in making it into the federal budget is pretty unclear, however.

One proposal, dubbed "Pell for Accelerated Completion," would extend students' eligibility for Pell Grants to a third semester, allowing more of them to take courses year-round and not stop their academic work during the summer. That's what happens under the current Pell structure for many students, according the department. The department stated that this would provide about 700,000 students in higher education an additional $1,915, on average, for college completion. 

The other "On-Track Pell Bonus" plan would lift the cap on the maximum Pell Grant award by $300 for students who take at least 15 credits per academic semester. That would help students stay on track to get associate degrees in two years, assuming 60 credits for such degrees, and to get bachelor's degrees in four years, assuming those degrees require 120 credits. The plan would help 2.3 million students next year get college degress more quickly, according to the department.

"The two new Pell proposals will help students to accelerate progress towards their degrees by attending school year-round and encourage students to take more credits per term, increasing their likelihood of on-time completion," the department said in a fact sheet. 

The Pell Grant program has about $28.5 billion in federal support, and the maximum grant a student can receive under Pell is $5,845 is for one academic year. 

So what's the cost of the two proposals released today? Around $2 billion for fiscal 2017, according to the Education Department. It's very questionable whether the proposals will get traction in Congress. Getting the Pell Grants system stabilized has been a tricky act for lawmakers recently, with funding shortfalls a major concern in recent years.

Congress debated reauthorizing the Higher Education Act last year, and Pell Grants were a part of that discussion—including a provision to make the grants available for use year-round. But unlike the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, legislators haven't gotten around to renewing it. (That might change soon, however, if Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the education committee and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the panel's top Democrat have their way.) 

UPDATE: In a conference call with reporters, U.S. Undersecretary Ted Mitchell expressed optimism that Congress would take the proposals seriously because of the importance of higher education and its links to the workforce, saying, "These are bipartisan issues. These are not Democratic issues or Republican issues."

Mitchell also said that the proposals were influenced by some initiatives at the state level, and singled out a pilot of performance-based scholarships from MDRC, a nonprofit research organization, as one such initiative.

During his State of the Union address earlier this month, President Barack Obama urged Congress to make college more affordable for students and help ensure that students aren't "stuck in the red" because of higher education debt. He cited the idea of tuition-free community college, not Pell Grants specifically, in his speech. 

The department has been fairly active in this policy area. Late last year, for example, the department announced it was creating a $20 million pilot program for Pell Grants that would be earmarked for high school students taking dual-enrollment courses.

And the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, said during a debate last year that Pell Grants should also be made available for students to defray living expenses.


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