Pell Grant changes drop enrollment in Mississippi community colleges

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 13, 2013 

— Fourteen of Mississippi's 15 community colleges reported enrollment declines in the fall of 2012 compared with a year ago, and much of the reason is due to changes last year in eligibility requirements for Pell grants, according to a new study released on Tuesday.

Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College was the only school that showed no decline.

The study, by Stephen Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama, also estimated that 8,680 community college students in Mississippi will lose their Pell grant eligibility "in the next several semesters" because they will have met a new limit of 12 semesters of full-time enrollment.

"This study has important implications for other southern states because most of them do not have much in the way of state-funded need-based student aid programs, and Pell is often the only need-based student aid available," Katsinas said.

Pell grants are federal need-based aid to low income students attending college and in some cases, graduate school.

Congress last year passed a law that lowered the lifetime maximum number of semesters for Pell eligibility to 12. It also lowered the income level at which students qualify for Pell grants when they fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA. In addition, the law eliminated a system that had allowed colleges to permit students to use Pell grants for job training programs even if they didn't have a high school diploma. Now high school completion is required.

Congress imposed the restrictions in a period when Pell grants have been increasing. The White House has said it saved money by putting student loans under a federal government system and used the savings to provide more aid under Pell. Nationally, the number of Pell recipients since 2008 has increased from 6 million to 9 million students.

Three states decline

The study looked at Pell grants and enrollment declines in three southern states: Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. In the three states, enrollment declined at 47 of the region's 62 two-year colleges.

It wasn't clear why MGCCC was the exception to the one-year decline in enrollments. College officials didn't immediately return calls for comment.

Colleen Hartfield, vice president for community relations at Hinds Community College in Raymond, who formerly worked at MGCCC, said it was regaining enrollment slowly as it recovered from Hurricane Katrina.

In Alabama, 18 of 25 community colleges reported an enrollment decline last fall, compared with a year earlier. In Arkansas, 20 of the state's 22 two-year colleges reported enrollment declines in that same period.

The report estimated enrollment declines would continue in those states, as well over the next few semesters. It estimated 5,074 students in Alabama and 3,225 in Arkansas would lose their Pell grant eligibility.

Community colleges and Pell grants are a key part of higher education systems nationwide.

Majority of students

In Mississippi last year, 68 percent of all college freshmen in the state attended community colleges. Statewide, 48 percent of community college students received Pell grants.

Both Pell grants and community colleges are "vital to enhancing college degree completion in the Deep South, for it is the community colleges where economically disadvantaged students begin higher education," the study noted. It added Pell grants help people attain degrees and workforce training certificates, leading to jobs and economic growth.

Katsinas said he thought the Pell grant restrictions were misguided.

A maximum Pell grant is $5,500 per year. Completing college in 12 semesters (or six years) could be challenging for low-income students, he said. Many often have to drop out because of high college costs far beyond what the Pell grants are worth.

Others lose time in college because they change majors, Katsinas added. Also, students who are out of school for a long time between high school and college may need refresher or remedial courses.

The enrollment numbers were based on surveys of community college officials. All of the two-year colleges in the three-state region responded. However, national enrollment data for 2012 hasn't been compiled yet, said David Thomas, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education.

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