Stricter Pell Grant terms cost students at smaller schools, officials say
by Laura Gaddy
lbgaddy@annistonstar.com
Oct 22, 2013 | 3562 views |  0 comments | 63 63 recommendations | email to a friend | print
JSU freshmen Charlie Reed, left, and Jake Ingram, both from Hokes Bluff sit on a bench on the quad and study Tuesday afternoon. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
JSU freshmen Charlie Reed, left, and Jake Ingram, both from Hokes Bluff sit on a bench on the quad and study Tuesday afternoon. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
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Jacksonville State University chief financial aid officer Vickie Adams knows that about 40 percent of students at the local institution depend on income-based Pell Grants to pay for classes.

So when Congress passed limitations to the grant program in 2012, she knew the changes would mean some students would no longer be able to depend on the money. And it came as no surprise to her when students began turning to her office for answers and for help at start of the fall semester last year when the changes began to take effect.

“They just wanted to sit down with someone and let that person explain how it got to this point,” Adams said, noting that the university directed some students who lost Pell Grants to federal loans. “We were trying to let them know another resource they might go to.”

Officials at JSU point to the changes in the Pell Grant program as the main reason enrollment slipped for the second year in a row there. A 2012 study conducted by the University of Alabama also indicates that the Pell Grant changes may be contributing to falling enrollment at other universities across the state.

“Our public access institutions are more sensitive to Pell Grant eligibility than they ever have been,” said Stephen Katsinas, an author of the study and director of the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center.

Also heavily affected by the changes in Pell Grants are the state’s two-year institutions, which saw a 3.8 percent decline in overall enrollment this fall, according to a preliminary enrollment report issued by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education.

In the spring of 2012, Congress passed changes that limited the number of students who could use Pell Grants to pay for college. The changes limited the number of semesters students can use Pell Grants to 12, or six year. The changes also reduced the annual income requirements to $23,000 from $32,000, meaning fewer students qualified for the program.

Another aspect of college funding that could affect enrollment for some students is the increasing cost of tuition, said George Pernsteiner, the president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Since the 2008 recession, tuition has increased as state appropriations have declined across the country.

Pernsteiner said the hikes are likely already affecting lower income students who have a tough time paying higher costs for education. That’s especially true at regional universities, which market their low to moderate tuition to attract more students, he said.

“You reach a point where the kinds of students you’re serving have trouble paying,” Pernsteiner said. “We have to solve that dilemma, fairly soon.”

The overall effect is that universities and colleges are trying to do more, or at least the same amount, of work with the same, or fewer, financial resources.

“The question is how do you use what you have more efficiently,” Pernsteiner said. “It’s a national discussion with different implications for each state.”

He added that when hard times hit, regional universities are more vulnerable than flagship institutions, like the University of Alabama, and research institutions, like the University of Alabama at Birmingham. That’s because regional institutions typically have fewer sources of money compared to larger institutions with well-funded endowment programs.

Of Alabama’s 14 four-year institutions, eight — including JSU — have seen a decline in enrollment. All but two of those eight — Auburn University, and Troy University — serve fewer students than JSU, according to a report by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education.

The state’s larger institutions seem to be less vulnerable to the changes in the Pell Grant program and to declining enrollment, Katsinas said.

Alabama’s other research institutions and its historically black colleges and universities didn’t see enrollment drop in 2013. Instead those institutions saw enrollment increase slightly in 2013, according to the commission’s report.

Auburn University’s enrollment made it an anomaly among its peer institutions, but the dip didn’t catch officials there off guard, according to a statement emailed by Wayne Alderman, Auburn university dean of enrollment services.

“Auburn has a policy of roughly 25,000 students and we are right at that number for 2013-14. We were slightly above the number for 2012-2013 so it makes sense to see a decrease and it is what we expected. Our budget is based on this same 25,000 and we are at that number,” the statement said.

JSU is a regional university, meaning it offers a wide range of undergraduate programs and some masters programs but few doctoral programs. Regional institutions are likely to enroll more students who use Pell Grants, Pernsteiner said.

He said regional institutions typically have low- to mid-range tuition costs and student fees which attract cost-conscious students who use Pell Grants to pay for their education.

As the effects of the recession set in, the federal government expanded the Pell Grant program and more students were able to use it to pay for college, according to the Pell Grant study by the University of Alabama. Between 2008 and 2012 Pell Grant funding grew by $300 million, 261 percent at two-year colleges and 124 percent at four-year public universities, according to the study.

As the students came to depend more on Pell Grants, so too did the institutions that serve them, the experts said.

Katsinas said the Alabama enrollment data reflects poorly on the tightening of Pell Grant qualifications.

“If the goal is to have more Alabamians with completed college degrees, these are not good data,” Katsinas said.

Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.

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