In today’s New York Times, three highly-respected higher education analysts (Sandy Baum, Kristin Conklin, and Nate Johnson) make the case that the current formulation of the federal Pell Grant penalizes students who wish to move more rapidly through college by taking more than 12 credits a term. Their alternative proposal is not clear in the op-ed, for reasons I will describe below, but generally they seem to want to tie the maximum Pell to a requirement that students take at least 15 credits a term.
The inflammatory headline on the article provokes response, shouting for Congress to “Stop Penalizing Poor College Students.” The implication is clear and presented as indisputable: currently the Pell Grant is punitive and discourages completion.
On this point, I partly disagree. In the last post on this blog I explained numerous ways in which the Pell Grant formula and administrative procedures hinder college completion. I further argue that in some ways the rules about the grant are punitive.
But the currently rules tying the maximum Pell Grant to 12 credits rather than 15 credits are not punitive. They would only be punitive if this meant that (a) students did not have enough money to afford 15 credits or (b) it forbid students from taking more than 12 credits. There is no such rule. And while the authors point out that where schools charge by the credit at all levels rather than using a “plateau” system where students pay the same for 12-18 credits, they provide very little evidence that this is a widespread problem. All they can cite is this: “A survey that looked at one randomly selected community college in each state found that 42 of 50 set prices by the credit hour. So do large for-profits like the University of Phoenix.”
That sort of problem does not require a change to the Pell Grant. It simply means that Title IV should require institutions to institute a tuition plateau for Pell recipients. A problem residing at perhaps 100 colleges in the nation, and a for-profit, is not reason to revise the rules affecting millions of Pell recipients.
If on the other hand students do not know that they can take 15 credits for the price of 12, why not simply tell them? That calls for an informational campaign or college coaching, not a change to federal rules.
This has to be made clear because the consequences of such a change are as likely to be negative as they are to be positive. Now, it’s a bit hard to tell because the authors never clearly state what they seek– an increase to the max Pell, and increased spending, or a cut in Pell dollars for students taking less than 15 credits. But let’s take the rosiest scenario, the one the authors hope for. To achieve a higher Pell for students taking 15 credits, let’s say that magically the maximum Pell is raised to $7000 and only those taking 15 get that bump. And then let’s say that a set of students currently taking 12 credits understands the incentive to take 15 credits and responds by enrolling for 15 credits. First, we have to believe that the size of this group is large– since simply giving more money to those already taking 15 credits isn’t necessarily cost-effective (it isn’t changing behavior). Second, we have to believe they will not only get the larger Pell but succeed in making satisfactory academic progress at that credit level. If they don’t, they will then lose aid and watch their cost of attendance rise from one year to the next (again, see my last blog).
Far more likely, there will be no increase to the max Pell. Instead, to achieve this proposal’s ends, students taking 12 credits will see their Pell reduced– unless they switch to 15 credits. No doubt, that will save the Pell program money, but it may also come at a cost of higher attrition. Second, students who then attempt and fail at doing 15 credits a term will face more income volatility.
The theory of action underlying the proposal is that students lack motivation to take 15 credits and Pell is causing this. We have seen Sandy Baum make this claim repeatedly and recently the Community College Research Center echoed it– yet there is no empirical evidence to support the economic theory. Instead, we see Pell students struggling to juggle work and school, and managing to achieve grades high enough to make SAP. Lest you think this a low bar, try talking to schools like the Community College of Philadelphia, where hundreds if not thousands of students fail to make SAP each year. It hurts them, and their schools’ bottom line.
Unless and until we are prepared to meet more of students’ financial need and provide more academic support, we have no business tying their financial need to their credit loads. It is ironic on a day of Congressional testimony about aid simplification and at a time with the credit hour itself is rightfully being called into question, that such a complicated proposal would be offered. It is a cost-cutting measure on the backs of poor students, and little more.