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Hilbert Morales EO Publisher

Hilbert Morales
EO Publisher

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The Higher Education Act (1965), renamed for Senator Claiborne Pell in 1980, was originally authorized by President Lyndon Johnson.  ‘Pell Grants’ guaranteed low-income disadvantaged students the same opportunity for a college education as children in middle-class families. Like most well-intentioned government programs, whem implemented, its costs for these new entitlement increased explosively over the years to exceed the funds appropriated by Congress.

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In 1976, 1.9 million students received average awards of $759 totaling $1.45 billion. By 2013, 9.7 million students eacj received between $3,800 and $5,575 in grants. President Obama plans to increase these grant award numbers to 14 million students by 2020.

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Pell grants are not awarded by merit. The sole criterion is total income of an independent student or family. The facts are that the number of independent students has greatly increased the risks , after the first year, for prolonged attendance and dropping out. Within six years, 30% of students enrolled in public 2-year institutions  earn an associate’s (AA) degree and 57% of students enrolled in public 4-year institutions graduate. Younger students do better; 45% of older students successfully complete the requirements for a bachelor’s degree. A Gates-Lumina study revealed that only 3% of Pell recipients had completed their 4-year credential after 6 years.
Factors like independent status, single parenthood and dependents are risks that adversely influence success. In a recent AIR study of 1.1 million 1st year students, 500,000 failed to graduate. The cost for the students who dropped out after the first year was $4 billion.

California has 2.3 million college students enrolled on 122 campuses, including the largest community college system in the world. 250,000 students receive $1 billion in Pell Grant funds that are turned over to the schools. California’s community colleges received over $100 million in federal, state and local tax revenue in 2008 alone for students who dropped out after the 1st year.

Low-income students (54%) now attend college, a remarkable increase from 31% at the 1975 start of the Pell program. The majority attend community colleges. A significant percentage are enrolled in specific training programs for an occupational credential, not an academic degree. The Pell Grant program is one of the rare federal programs that have avoided congressional oversight or public scrutiny regarding its effectiveness or bias. This may have resulted in the runaway costs and possible instances of abuse and fraud by recipients and institutions alike. U.S. Congress member Denny Rehberg called the Pell program “welfare of the 21st century”. He has a point. The 9-year entitlement until graduation is almost double the federal mandate for length of welfare.

Most colleges and universities are required to fulfill federal diversity requirements to qualify for Pell money. Those that fail to do so do not receive the funds.  Catholic institutions of higher education do not receive any Pell funds. All Black colleges  receive funds and 40-50% of their students have been receiving Pell grants for years. About 43% of Pell recipients are White. The rate of poverty among Blacks and Hispanics is considerably higher than among Whites. Even if income, not merit, is the sole eligibility requirement to qualify for this program, some have said it discriminates against Whites. These are legitimate concerns that call for objective, careful re-assessment.

Federal aid to 15 million students in 2012 totaled $142 billion with $33 billion going to the Pell program. In light of the significant numbers of students who drop out after the first year, or fail to graduate after six years, its current application suggests considerable room for improvement. Among the most obvious is awarding the grants for academic merit, as well as low income, and restricting the number of years for completion of the credential. This would  be a good way to obtain a better return on investment  for its national capital.

Pell grants are free money that does not have to be repaid by recipients. There is no statutory limit to the program, although the current maximum is 9 years to complete a 2-year AA program. Students who were 18 years old or younger when they started college had a ten-fold greater likelihood of graduating with a degree.  Older students seeking job training may get better results costing far less by attending vocational schools or job corps rather than college.

It is often said that no good deed goes unpunished. This maxim is especially true in the case of government programs. It is time to re-assess the criteria for awarding Pell Grants.


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