The program was successful. Hundreds of thousands of students took advantage of the grants and enrolled in colleges. Meanwhile, as state legislatures reduced higher education appropriations, colleges found that students with Pell Grants helped them grow enrollment and offset at least some of the cuts that were coming down from places like Montgomery.
Thus, the Pell Grant program grew. As it did, it became more costly.
As Congress recently became more concerned with cutting the budget than in investing in the future, Pell Grants came under scrutiny and changes were made.
Some changes were realistic — and some not so.
On the realistic side, the income level at which Pell Grant-eligible families can make no contribution to their student’s education was reduced from $32,000 to $23,000 — slightly above the poverty standard for a family of four.
On the unrealistic side, students were restricted to only 12 full-time semesters of Pell Grant aid in their lifetime.
In this case, legislators were thinking of those days of yore when 12 full-time semester hours were sufficient to complete a four-year degree. However, studies have shown that this is no longer the case. Program requirements have increased the number of hours students need for a degree in some fields. Budget cuts have reduced the number of classes offered, and often students who would like to take more hours simply cannot schedule the classes.
In addition, Pell Grant students often work, and because they do, they can take only the minimum hours to be full-time (usually 13 semester hours) and not the hours needed to graduate in four years.
So, a college degree in 12 full-time hours is simply not possible.
That is why nearly 5,000 Alabama college students this year are losing their Pell Grants.
In addition, because of new Pell Grant requirements that recipients have graduated from high school or have a GED, many students in community college and trade school vocational programs will lose their grants, as well.
The Alabama Commission on Higher Education is suggesting reducing the Pell Grant amounts to keep costs in check, while at the same time relaxing the restrictions to allow more students to participate in the program.
That would be a good place to start.