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Experts Call for Changes to Pell Grants

Although the maximum Pell Grant of $5,550 survived the recent budget deal in Congress, year-round Pell Grants were scrapped, and now it looks like the battle in next year's budget will not be over whether—but how—to cut the federal aid program for low-income college students.

Rather than slash awards by nearly $2,000 to pre-2008 levels as suggested by Republican leaders in the House, education policy experts are calling for changes in eligibility and delivery of the program to reduce costs in a letter released Friday through the College Board.

The Pell program has exploded in recent years from $14 billion in 2007 to a proposed $41 billion in 2012 as students returned to school in the down economy and more qualified for assistance.

While there is growing acceptance that the program may not be sustainable at current levels, the scholars suggest reforms to trim costs and to target to students most likely to benefit from the student aid.

The letter is signed by Sandy Baum of the School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University; Susan Dynarski, associate professor with the Ford School of Public Policy and School of Education, University of Michigan; Art Hauptman, a higher education consultant in Washington; Bridget Terry Long, an economist with the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Mike McPherson president of the Spencer Foundation; Judith Scott-Clayton of Teachers College, Columbia University; and Sarah Turner, a professor in the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia.

Among the recommendations forwarded by the experts:

1. Require students to enroll in 15 credit hours a semester to qualify for a full-time Pell Grant, up from the current 12-hour minimum. The thinking is that this will encourage students to get through studies quicker and save the program money in the long run.

2. Limit years of eligibility for Pell Grants to six or eight years. Current law allows students to receive Pell Grants for up to the equivalent of nine years (18 full-time semesters) of undergraduate study. "This move could provide a clear signal that the program is not designed to subsidize students indefinitely, but to support them to complete their degrees in a timely manner," the letter says.

3. Change the process of determining of award amounts. The experts call for an adjustment to how the Expected Family Contribution is calculated for students with incomes between $20,000 and $30,000 so that maximum grants are given to those in greatest need.

4. As reforms are considered to cut costs, keep the financial-aid application process as as simple as possible. The concern is that additional questions to the Free Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) would be most harmful to those students who have the highest need.

5. Develop rules that would limit the availability of Pell Grants for students enrolled in institutions with particularly weak records of student success.


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