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Separate and Unequal: College Board Pell Grant Proposal Tackles College Completion, Solutions Fall Short

Apr 23, 2013


Last week, the College Board Study Group released its proposal to redesign the Pell Grant program to meet changing student needs. The proposal, Rethinking Pell Grants, which was authored by a 14-member panel of national higher education researchers and leadership, puts forth a plan to restructure the Pell Grant program into two separate and targeted programs based solely on the age of a student: “Pell Y” for younger students and “Pell A” for adult students (defined as 25 and older). We commend the College Board Study Group for recognizing the needs of all students, both young and old(er), as well as recognizing that many students need additional supportive services beyond financial aid to successfully persist and complete their programs.  Still, we remain concerned about the implications of a separate and unequal Pell Grant program that threatens to cut benefits for students based solely on age.

Importantly, a major proposed reform is that Pell A and Pell Y grants would be calculated differently. Among students in the Pell Y program, eligibility would be based on their parents' income as a percentage of the federal poverty level, whereas a student in the Pell A program would receive a flat grant (or partial grant) based (tentatively) on the average cost—including books and supplies—of community colleges.   This would be a stark departure from the current Pell grant program, which considers a number of factors including the cost of attendance, income, and living expenses required to be successful in school such as dependent care, transportation, and other significant “indirect costs.” These indirect costs are particularly relevant for adult students who must continue to cover such costs while pursuing a degree or certificate. Instead of including allowances for these living expenses in the Pell grant calculation, the proposal relies on an unrealistic assumption that federal and state workforce and income support programs alone can shore up these students’ living expenses and dependent care costs while in school.

The authors claim that such a bifurcated Pell program will serve all students better.  Yet increasingly, students no longer fall into typical traditional-versus-nontraditional or younger-versus-older categories. Is the College Board’s proposal going backwards by dividing students into rigid categories at a time when there are more “gray areas” between students than ever before?  Will an age-based student aid system lead to “tracking” students and creating eligibility “cliffs,” limiting financial aid eligibility and potentially limiting future choices?

The College Board Study Group presented the report as a framework and hopes to engage stakeholders to explore the implications of such a proposal and work to refine details. As such, CLASP poses key questions below in areas that we believe the proposal would benefit from refinements.

Is age the most important characteristic related to student completion trends?

The rationale for this proposal, stated by the panel, is that younger and older students vary across numerous dimensions all highly correlated with age. They claim adult students have lower completion rates and are more drawn to occupational, shorter-term programs. Though older students may indeed be more focused on programs that are well-connected to job opportunities (as are many younger students), we disagree with the claim that age alone dictates completion rates. Read More >>

Does determining financial aid eligibility based on a single characteristic—such as age—move in the wrong direction for improving equity in higher education?

Much attention and effort has gone into increasing equity in higher education across various types of student characteristics from race to income to family background. In that spirit, the goal of the federal student aid system is to ensure access and equity across disadvantaged groups of students. But the report draws a bright line between students based solely on age and gives no consideration to need and credential goals. Drawing such an arbitrary distinction between groups of students does not serve all students better and actually introduces inequality into the student aid system at a time when we are trying to reduce inequalities in access and success in postsecondary education. Read More >>

Will this proposal reduce postsecondary access and affordability, particularly for adult students?

Current student aid law takes into consideration not only the cost of tuition, fees, books and supplies, but also a modest allowance for basic living expenses. This is designed to recognize that students, particularly those who are independent and may have children, face a myriad of costs associated with attending college which may include lost wages due to having to work fewer hours. But grant aid and the contribution low-income students can afford to make fall woefully short of high and growing college costs, and the vast majority of low-income students still have considerable unmet need (the amount they must pay above and beyond their expected family contribution and grant and scholarship aid). New analysis by CLASP shows that, while high percentages of low-income dependent and independent students have unmet need, over 98 percent of independent full-time community college students with incomes in the bottom three quartiles (≤$30,622) had unmet need in 2007-2008. Read More >>

Given the current capacity and low eligibility levels of federal and state workforce and income support programs, is it realistic to assume many students will be able to secure sufficient support to meet their living expenses?

The proposal hinges on an unrealistic assumption that Pell A students will have greater access to other training resources and income supports. However, public investments in education and training programs that might help to cover these costs – such as career-technical education, workforce development, and adult education -- have been slashed over the last three years alone by 16 percent, before the devastating impact of sequestration.

CLASP applauds the panel for beginning a conversation about how to improve student access to income supports such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), housing subsidies, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance.  However, these supports should be seen as supplements to the portions of financial aid that can be devoted to living expenses, not replacements for them. Relying on these programs as a main source of financial support for students is not realistic for a number of reasons. Read More>>

We commend the College Board Study Group for highlighting the importance of Pell Grants and other student aid for both younger and older students and for particularly thinking hard about the additional supports adult students need, such as increased college and career counseling and access to other supportive services. However, the proposals to redefine student aid eligibility based on age alone and to limit the types of college costs that adult students can include in their grant calculation sets up a separate and unequal student aid system. In helping low-income students – especially adults -  obtain more financial resources for college, the solution is not to create an arbitrarily bifurcated system of aid that gives one group an advantage over another. The solution is to keep college costs from growing and to find ways to help students access a broader range of financial resources above and beyond student financial aid.

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