Community College Daily: Time is right for year-round Pell

Vinton Thompson, president, Metropolitan College of New York

Commentary appears in Community College Daily:

Time is right for year-round Pell

The time is right for a bipartisan push to help some of our nation’s most dedicated college students – Pell eligible women and men who overcome real barriers to study year-round. 

Pell grants support low- and middle-income students working toward undergraduate degrees. With the exception of a short period early in the Obama administration, Pell support has been limited to two semesters a year, unreasonably disadvantaging students who want to accelerate their time to graduation by studying year around. This includes many adult, non-traditional students. They live at home, usually work full or part-time, and are not served well by the traditional academic calendar, with fall and spring semesters followed by long summers off.

With year-round Pell, students would receive support for three semesters, not just two. This makes a big difference. At my institution, Metropolitan College of New York, we have always run three full semesters a year. Our students can earn a bachelor’s degree in just two years and eight months, without cutting academic corners. As a result, they can enjoy the full economic benefits of a college degree a year and a half sooner than under the traditional calendar.

But, with Pell support limited to two semesters per year, they now exhaust their annual eligibility partway through the year. This forces them to choose between year-round enrollment and taking out additional student loans to pay for the third semester. 

If there is one thing Americans agree on, it is that we should do more to lower student loan burdens. This is an opportunity to reduce student debt, while at the same time accelerating people into the workforce. Grant recipients would get a year's advantage or more of the considerable advantage in earnings power conferred by a college degree and the nation would benefit from more educated workers sooner rather than later.

Congress is in a sweet spot to act. Pell expenditures are down, with a $7.7 billion surplus projected this year, providing budget leeway to fund a year-round Pell initiative. Two key congressional players, Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair and ranking Democrat of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, support the idea. In a Congress noted for gridlock, Alexander and Murray have proven their ability to move important bipartisan education legislation with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act – in December 2015.

The Obama administration has proposed a year-round Pell plan that would give nearly 700,000 students the opportunity to complete degrees faster, with an additional $1,915 per year support. We should urge our representatives to adopt this plan, or a reasoned alternative. The result will be more graduates, faster, with less loan debt.

Not least, this action will help restore confidence that even in the midst of a bitterly contested presidential election year, Congress can set aside partisan differences and act for the good of some of the nation’s most deserving students.