Cochran plays key role in return of year-round pell grant program
Last week, Congress passed funding legislation that not only kept the federal government open for the rest of year, but also achieved something of vital importance for community college students: It made the Pell Grant program available year-round, rather than just for the traditional academic year of September through May. Senator Thad Cochran, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, deserves deep gratitude for his central role in this landmark development. Pell Grants are the primary source of federal support for the most financially needy college students. They were established in 1972, when the typical college student was 18-22 years old and attended school from the early fall through late spring. However, this traditional student has become a smaller portion of the college-going population, especially at community colleges. Nationally, the average community college student is 28 years old, attends school part-time, and works. In 2008, Congress passed legislation that created the year-round Pell Grant, but after just two years it was revoked to address then-ballooning program costs. Community leaders across the country had just gotten started to ramp up programs and related support services to help their students stay enrolled continuously. Losing the year-round Pell Grant was devastating to community college students, who were turning to the institutions in huge numbers in the depths of the recession. Ever since, it has been a top priority for community colleges and their national organization, the American Association of Community Colleges, to restore year-round Pell Grants. For many community college students, the length of time it takes to achieve their educational goal is all important, because they need an academic credential now, not later, to leverage greater opportunity in the workforce. At present, students who rely on student aid to afford college are often forced to “stop out” of school in the summer months because their federal aid only covers the traditional academic year. For too many of these students a temporary break in studies becomes permanent because work or family commitments get in the way, or because they simply fall out of the academic mode. Research has shown consistently that staying in school and making continued progress propels college completion. Increasing the ability of college students to stay enrolled year-round will also help American business. The ongoing “skills gap” exists in large part because an increasing number of jobs require some postsecondary education or training, while college completion rates have basically remained flat. Multiple program start times, evening and weekend classes, and year-round programs are just some of the things that colleges are doing to better serve their students and industry partners alike. But all these reforms are for naught if a student can’t stay in college continuously because their federal aid takes the summer off. There has been bipartisan support for reinstatement of year-round Pell Grants since they were eliminated, but until now the stars had not aligned. Declining costs in the Pell Grant program helped pave the way, and indications of support from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and House Speaker Paul Ryan, among others, also helped. But in the end, it took the resolve of a few well-positioned and dedicated leaders like Sen. Cochran to get this proposal across the finish line. Community college students in Mississippi and across the country could not be more grateful. David Baime is Senior Vice President for Government Relations and Policy Analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges. The American Association of Community Colleges is the primary advocacy organization for the nation’s community colleges. The association represents nearly 1,200 two-year, associate degree–granting institutions and more than 13 million students.