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Return of year-round Pell Grants could help community college students the most

College and graduation illustration
Illustration by Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio

Federal financial aid for low-income students that's now available all year could push more students through community colleges faster and increase the likelihood of them earning a degree.

The U.S. Department of Education announced the return of year-round Pell Grants for the fiscal year that began July 1. And with large portions of students studying at community colleges eligible for the grant program, it could increase summer enrollment figures.

Pell Grants are worth up to $6,000 for the most needy students, but that money was only good for two semesters. Now, if students take at least half of a full course load in the summer, they’ll get additional aid.

At St. Louis Community College, nearly 40 percent of students receive a Pell Grant, but enrollment in the summer is half of what it is in the fall term.

There are several reasons for that, like the need to work, but Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Tony Cruz said there could be an increase in summer enrollment now that students won’t have to pay out of pocket.

“This program and this policy change is really going to help those students that really want to get ahead and have exhausted that Pell throughout the fall and spring,” he said.

Taking even a few classes over the summer will maintain momentum for students to earn a degree, Cruz said. He couldn’t put a solid estimate on what summer enrollment could be in the future.

"Expanding access to the Pell program, so that students who need additional resources can graduate more quickly and with less debt, is the right thing to do," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in announcing the return of year-round Pell.

Year-round grants were available from 2009 to 2011 but were eliminated because of funding shortages.

Mariah Opager, of the low-income student support organization College Bound, said Summer Pell, as it’s also known, will give part-time or low-income students more flexibility to “have more time to maybe work or take care of family and focus on a fewer number of courses but then still make the progress that they need to be making in order to graduate on time.”

A grant being available for summer studies will also reduce loan debt and financial burdens for low-income students, Opager said.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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