WASHINGTON — Community college leaders will be trooping to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to chat with their elected representatives about the state of their institutions.
And during the National Community College Legislative Summit, college trustees and presidents were given a clear talking point when buttonholing their favorite lawmaker: it’s all about Pell.
“If you do nothing but talk about Pell Grants, that’s time well-spent,” said David Baime, senior president for government relations for the American Association of Community Colleges. “There is a great deal at stake for us.”
Baime’s comments, made to more than 1,000 community college trustees and administrators, underscored what’s been indentified as the top federal funding priority for both the AACC and the Association of Community College Trustees – maintaining and improving Pell, the bedrock financial aid program which helps 3.35 million low- and moderate-income students pay for tuition, course material and living expenses.
The summit, organized by the ACCT, fell on the same day that Steven G. Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama, released a new study documenting how students in three southern states have been battered by 2012 changes in Pell eligibility.
The study found that more than 5,000 students in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi lost Pell eligibility in fall 2012, and another 17,000 students will lose Pell eligibility in 2012-13. The study also found that 47 of 62 community colleges in the three states lost enrollment this year, and blamed decreases in Pell eligibility for the enrollment reductions.
Cost-cutting measures to Pell, enacted last summer, have disproportionately affected community college students. The changes reduced Pell eligibility from 18 semesters to 12 semesters; reduced to $23,000 the maximum annual income a family can earn for a student to be eligible for a full Pell grant; and barred students who do not have a GED or a high school diploma from receiving a Pell grant.
The AACC and the ACCT want to restore that eligibility, and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has written legislation that would clear the way for students in “career pathways” program to get Pell grants. But the same legislation would cut Pell eligibility for community college students enrolled entirely online precluding the students from receiving money for transportation or living expenses.
“This is a very negative provision for community college students,” Baime said.
The changes to Pell might have has their intended effect. A recent report by the Congressional Budget Office found that the Pell program will have a $9.2 billion surplus at the end of fiscal year 2013. Just last year, the CBO had forecast a $6 billion shortfall.
Still, community college officials face an uphill battle in persuading Congress to give colleges more financial support. Higher education is held in low esteem by both lawmakers and the public because of skyrocketing costs and poor graduation rates.
Other priorities for community colleges;
— Helping community colleges serve veterans and active-duty military.
— Passing the DREAM Act, providing a pathway to citizenship for thousands of undocumented students brought to the country as children.
— Reauthorizing and improving the Workforce Investment Act by insuring that community college are members of local workforce investment boards.