Local News Spotlight

Changes to Pell grant program catch some students by surprise

Students learn they may no longer be eligible for as much money in Pell grants — or any at all.

Updated: 2012-10-09T04:43:51Z

By DAWN BORMANN

The Kansas City Star

As a 34-year-old non-traditional college student, Tashia Jackson has some friendly advice for those relying on Pell grants.

Use your time wisely and don’t expect the grants to last forever.

They didn’t for Jackson.

The University of Missouri-Kansas City senior was among tens of thousands of college students affected this fall by a change in the duration of Pell grants, which help students from lower-earning families go to college. The grants — once capped at eight years — now have a lifetime limit of six years or 12 full-time semesters.

The change came after many students had already received preliminary notification of their Pell Grant award for the year. It means many students had their grant amount changed or, like Jackson, pulled entirely weeks before classes were set to begin.

“I think it caught a lot of students by surprise,” said Mary Dorr, Kansas City Kansas Community College financial aid director.

Colleges and universities have done their best to work with students, but the change has prompted some — it’s impossible to tell how many — to leave school entirely. The U.S. Department of Education said that last year about 64,000 of the 9.4 million students receiving Pell grants had received them longer than six years.

The law took effect in July and was passed months earlier. But it took months for the federal government to tell schools exactly who had used up their eligibility and would be cut off.

The law has no grandfather clause, so Jackson, a second-time college student, had little warning. Her award went from thousands of dollars to zero.

“Sometimes you just don’t know if you want to cry or what,” said the mother of two.

College financial aid officials have scrambled this fall to help students fill the void with scholarships and loans.

Jackson thinks the changes are ultimately good but that more warning could have been better. She works in the financial aid office at UMKC but even she was surprised.

“People have to do what they have to do for their budget. I just think that forewarning would have been great,” she said.

Many think that the cap will put students on notice that they can’t linger in college — on the government dime — indefinitely.

Dorr said the change has been jarring this semester given the last-minute notice. But it could have a good outcome.

“In the long run I think it will help students sit down with counselors and advisers to sit down and plan,” Dorr said.

Many others agreed.

At UMKC, the new rule has prompted academic advisers to discuss finances more with students.

One counselor said she would encourage students to talk with financial aid before switching majors, a practice that typically adds more classes and money to a student’s load.

“There may be more students that realize that when they come in as a transfer student that they may need to stick with a plan, which is always advisable anyway,” said Becky Bergman, director of academic advising for UMKC’s college of arts and sciences.

Schools now are working to notify students nearing their lifetime maximum. Most students will be notified of the cutoff after 4.5 years of Pell Grant funds.

Kansas City, Kan., School District officials said they’ve already changed their approach to college counseling with students given the economy, job outlook and student loan debt. This further emphasizes the need for students to track every bill spent on college.

“Five years ago we were very comfortable telling students, ‘Don’t be afraid of student loans. It’s a good investment for a college education,’ ” said Mary Viveros, a Kansas City, Kan., district administrator. “Since then there’s a lot of information that’s coming back saying these loans can really hurt kids.”

At times students drop out of college without degrees but with significant loan debt to pay back. In other cases, students pile up debt for careers that don’t pay enough to return on the initial investment.

“The worst-case scenario is you borrow the money and you don’t finish,” Viveros said.

The data have caused high school counselors to get students thinking about finances with a more critical eye, Viveros said.

“We are counseling students to be much wiser about borrowing money,” she said. “We are trying to get students to think through the whole financial plan aspect of it.”

The counseling and follow-up by college counselors is key too, Viveros said, given that many students are taking longer to complete college. Long-term financial planning isn’t easy for adults, let alone high school graduates.

“It’s just not a skill set that most 18-year-olds have,” she said.

For her part, Jackson isn’t bitter. Rather, she’s intent on getting the word out to help freshmen and non-traditional students like herself.

Jackson first received Pell Grant money right out of high school when she attended cosmetology school. It was a good fit for the eight years she spent in the hair industry. But eventually she decided to redirect her career.

Pell grants helped her attend community college and then transfer to UMKC. A few summer school sessions and a change in her major helped put her over the limit.

Jackson had planned to graduate in December, but she’s had to delay her degree until May to cover the bill. UMKC helped her find loans and scholarships to cover part of the bill.

She said the notice was stressful at first, but no more than starting college with a 4-week-old infant. She’d spent far too many sleepless nights studying and juggling motherhood to stop now. And she couldn’t leave school without a degree to help pay back her loans.

“Somebody has to pay for your education,” she said. “And really I want this and so regardless of what I have to buckle down and do, this is for me.”

But she wants parents and other college students to chart their course early with these words in mind.

“My advice would be mainly to the high school students to get a focus. Plan ahead, especially financially,” she said. “And don’t mess around.”

To reach Dawn Bormann, call 816-234-7704 or send email to dbormann@kcstar.com.

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