Getting more low-income students into college has long been a focus of the Obama Administration. But a college acceptance is only half the equation. The other half: Getting those students across the finish line once they're enrolled. To that end, the administration is floating a plan to expand the Pell Grant program to give students a better shot at completing their education.
Only about 60 percent of students who enroll in bachelor’s degree programs graduate within six years. And, among those who do, many say getting a diploma took longer and cost more than they expected.
"Staying in school longer is expensive," said Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. "You’re paying more tuition, and you take more time out of the labor force."
Baum said there's also evidence that the longer a student spend in school, the less likely he or she will finish. This is especially true for low-income students who may be trying to balance a job and family responsibilities along with their education.
And dropping out has other costs. Students who check out before getting a degree are more likely to default on their student debt.
Under the proposal, students who take a full load of 15 credits a semester would be eligible for an extra $300 in aid per semester. Full-time students who add a third semester, say during the summer, would be eligible to receive an additional $1915 a year. Under the current system, students exhaust their Pell money after two semesters.
"For those who can afford to go full-time during the school year, this will help them complete faster," said Pauline Abernathy, vice president of the Institute for College Access & Success. The full-time requirement also will "reduce the cost of the program significantly," said Abernathy. The program is expected to cost about $2 billion.
The Department of Education estimates the year-round funding, if it passes Congress, could benefit about 700,000 students — out of the more than eight million who receive Pell Grants. Year-round Pell Grants have been available in the past, but in a different version than those proposed by the government. They were eliminated as part of federal budget cuts back in 2011.
But experts think there’s a chance that these newly proposed changes may have enough congressional support this budget cycle to stand a chance.