A recent national survey of community colleges found nearly 83% of respondents had a year-over-year increase in Pell Grant recipients during the 2018 summer semester after Congress reinstated year-round eligibility for the financial aid program. Nearly half (49.5%) of surveyed colleges saw an uptick of 15% or more, while a little over 10% saw a jump between 10.1% and 15%.
This increase coincided with a year-over-year increase in enrollment during the summer of 2018 at 62.2% of responding colleges, though the American Association of Community Colleges' survey notes causal links between enrollment and expanded Pell Grant availability cannot be drawn from this data.
More than two-thirds (70%) of surveyed community colleges said they drew students' attention to the summer availability of Pell Grants in some way. The two-year sector fought for the return of year-round availability since Congress nixed it in 2012 as a cost-saving measure. The federal government restored year-round Pell Grants last year as part of a bipartisan budget deal.
The reinstatement of year-round Pell Grants marked a victory for community college leaders, many of whom have been grappling with steady declines in enrollment for years.
Previously, because Pell Grants are determined by the number of credits taken within an academic year, full-time students often used up their federal aid before the summer semester. Some contended that structure didn't jive with the way modern-day students attend college, and that it eliminated the possibility to accelerate completion of a degree or certificate program.
There are early indications the return of year-round grants may have played a role in recent enrollment turnarounds at several community colleges. The Louisiana Community and Technical College System, for example, saw summer enrollment this year jump by 10% over the previous summer and pursued credit hours increase 17%, Inside Higher Ed reported.
Recent research also supports the notion that year-round grants can improve student outcomes and enrollment at community colleges. For each $1,000 of year-round Pell Grant funding per student, the likelihood of eligible students enrolling in summer classes rises by 27 percentage points, the Community College Research Center found. In turn, these summer academic gains led to small increases in associate degree and certificate completion rates.
Community colleges aren't the only institutions that say they have benefited from the change. Summer enrollment this year at California State University, Los Angeles nearly doubled from 2017 to about 5,900 students in 2018, which officials credit to the policy change, reported EdSource. Other Cal State campuses also saw increases in summer enrollment, including those in Sacramento, Fresno and San Diego.
However, the majority of four-year institutions are not graduating their Pell Grant students at the same rate as their other students. Roughly half (49%) of first-time, full-time Pell Grant recipients earned a bachelor's degree within six years at the college they initially enrolled in. That is 10 points lower than the overall graduation rate for the group, according to a 2018 report from Third Way, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
The report recommends lawmakers invest resources into high-performing colleges that enroll a high percentage of Pell Grant recipients, and that they create more incentives for other colleges to accept more low-income students.