January 22, 2013 10:23:07 AM
Changes to federal student aid last summer are taking a toll on Mississippi students, leaving college financial advisors concerned about the potential impact on enrollment as well as the state's economic future.
Pell Grants, which are based upon financial need, are a critical part of advancing the educations and careers of students across the South, particularly in rural areas. More than 70 percent of the state's community college students, and nearly half of all four-year university students, received Pell Grants in 2010-2011.
But regulations enacted by Congress July 1, 2012 caused nearly 3,000 Mississippi students to lose their Pell Grants last fall, and more than 7,000 additional students are expected to be stripped of eligibility in the upcoming semesters.
The consequences are already being felt at East Mississippi Community College and Mississippi University for Women.
EMCC's enrollment dropped 3.1 percent last fall, and MUW saw a 0.4 percent dip compared with the previous year. Stephen Katsinas, director of the University of Alabama's Education Policy Center, estimates the changes are to blame for enrollment decreases at 14 of the state's 15 community colleges.
Community colleges such as EMCC are primarily being hit by the semester eligibility reduction. Previously, students could receive Pell Grants for 18 semesters, but now the lifetime eligibility has been reduced to 12, and summer grants are no longer awarded.
Because many community college students are trying to juggle families and full-time jobs, it often takes them longer to complete their degrees, putting them at risk of running out of time, especially if they plan to transfer to a four-year college to finish their studies.
There is the opposite scenario as well. Some students begin at a four-year college, find themselves struggling, and transfer to a community college briefly before eventually returning to a university. A lot of those students have to spend time taking remedial, or non-credit classes, to catch up to their peers, costing time and money.
Then there are the students who either have trouble choosing a career path or they graduate and then have trouble finding a job and decide to return to pursue a degree in something else.
These are the types of problems Jim Gibson, vice president for financial aid at EMCC, sees every day. Though his office has tried to make students aware of the Pell Grant changes, some students have still been "broadsided" by the news they are no longer eligible, he said.
Although there are alternatives -- work study, tuition assistance grants, scholarships -- Pell Grants have long been considered the best hope for students from low-income households. Based solely upon need, students were automatically eligible to receive a Pell Grant as long as their family income did not exceed $32,000.
But that, too, has changed. Now, in order to qualify for the maximum Pell Grant, the family income cannot exceed $23,000.
The income requirement is not so much of a problem at EMCC, Gibson said, because so many students fall below that threshold. But the semester reduction is a major issue, and his office is scrambling to educate students and parents on the importance of determining how much aid will be needed and following the proper procedures to maximize their aid from all available resources.
He is hesitant to recommend students increase their course loads to finish their degrees sooner, but he said students need to begin preparing early, not waiting until registration day to begin trying to secure financial aid.
The changes are intended to cut ballooning expenses, cracking down on fraud and eliminating "career students" who are not serious about graduating, but Gibson said the federal government is hurting those students who genuinely want an education.
While it's nice to imagine a world in which students never drop a class or fail, it's not reality, he said. And in a tough economy, where unemployment continues to be an issue, a degree is no longer a guarantee of employment. Many students who are struggling in the workforce now find themselves faced with two options: Stay where they are and make the best of it or take out a student loan to return to school for a degree in something else.
"I'm afraid students are being forced to borrow more and more," Gibson said. "We try to encourage students to borrow as little as they have to, because it has to be repaid. It's easy to amass a pretty good-sized debt they have to repay when they graduate."
MUW President Dr. Jim Borsig is concerned by the semester reduction as well.
Approximately 55 percent of MUW students receive Pell Grants, but because The W receives a substantial number of transfer students, they run the risk of running out of money by the time they arrive. He said it's too soon to tell whether the Pell Grant changes contributed to the fall semester's relatively flat enrollment, though he suspects that is the case, but he was concerned enough that he went to see Katsinas at UA in December to discuss recent research about the issue.
The changes have forced the college to redouble its efforts to educate its students on how financial aid works.
"We've got to zero in on individual students to help them understand how they can finish that degree," Borsig said. "In a state like ours where there are so many who need to earn or finish a degree, students need all the assistance they can get."
For more information about changes to federal student aid, visit studentaid.ed.gov.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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