Some local college officials say Congressman Ralph Norman’s proposed changes to the Pell Grant system could shrink the number of students interested in higher education and add to a worsening national student debt crisis.
U.S. Reps. Ralph Norman, R-S.C. and Francis Rooney, R-Fl., have proposed the Pell Performance Act. The act would transform the Pell system, turning grants into unsubsidized Stafford loans for students who don’t graduate six years after initially receiving the grant.
“If this bill passes the House and the Senate, then before you (students) get the money you’d sign all the documents that spells this out. It takes the guesswork out of it,” Norman said. “College is a privilege, it’s not a right. If taxpayers pay for you to go to school, it lights a fire for the student to finish on time. Six years is plenty of time to finish.”
But, local college officials said, that could spook students who need financial aid to afford college, many of whom are already worried about the prospect of student debt.
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“Students are already nervous about the cost of higher education,” said Trevor Pittman, associate vice president of enrollment management at Converse College. “A proposal like this would really give students pause when they see the possible additional cost they may see if they’re not successful.”
Need-based Pell Grants provide up to $5,920 per year to help cover the costs of college, and federal tax dollars provide about $22.5 billion each year for Pell Grants.
The U.S. Department of Education however, found that Pell money only covers about 30 percent of the average cost of a 4-year college education.
Norman said that roughly 37 percent of students taking Pell money don’t wind up with degrees in the six-year period, the metric used by many colleges nationally to track graduation.
Students unsure if they can graduate in six years should think twice about taking the federal money, Norman said.
“Just don’t take the money. If you can’t do it in the six-year timeframe, then just don’t take the money,” he said. “Either work for it or have some other means to do it.”
In South Carolina, about 126,000 students earned Pell Grants totaling about $465 million, according to the Department of Education.
At Limestone College, about 56.8 percent of students earned some Pell Grant funding, said Bobby Greer, director of financial aid.
At the University of South Carolina Upstate, 43.7 percent of students earned Pell Grant money.
At Wofford College, about 16 percent of students earned Pell money.
At Converse College, 43.8 percent of students earned Pell money.
At Spartanburg Community College, a total of 2,762 students earned Pell Grant money this year.
More than half — 55 percent — of the students at Spartanburg Methodist College earned Pell Grants, said Chris Roberson, the college’s director of financial aid.
One of those students is Kendevon Stenhouse, in his second year at SMC.
Stenhouse said he understands the logic behind Norman’s proposal, and that if it were in effect, he would still go ahead and apply for Pell Grant money.
“I’m somewhere in the middle. I understand why he would want to make it that way,” he said. “I still would’ve accepted it (Pell Grant money). I think it makes it a challenge to finish school in that timely manner.”
Inspiring students to finish college more quickly is one of the arguments Norman used to support his proposal.
He said the move should benefit students looking for extra motivation and the institutions they attend.
“I think it’ll be a positive effect. I think you’ll have students with more incentive to get a degree,” he said. “It’ll help universities plan better. It may weed out some students who aren’t taking it seriously, and some other students could take their place.”
Jeff Boyle, director of financial aid and veteran affairs at SCC, students at the community college level would in particular be hurt by the changes because many work or care for families while in school.
“It is an absolutely terrible idea for the community college system and the students we serve,” said Jeff Boyle, Spartanburg Community College director of financial aid and veteran affairs. “Our population is drastically different than that of the four-year institutions, and this legislation would have an extremely negative impact on our students.”
Bonnie Carson, financial aid director at USC Upstate, said the bill would hurt many students, especially those who work while earning their degrees.
The move could dissuade lower-income students with aspirations of college graduation, Pittman said. He said wouldn’t necessarily benefit students or colleges.
“I appreciate the desire to fund higher education in a way that’s responsible, but it’s going to be a real negative for a lot of students who have the least access to higher education,” he said. “We know a lot more students are working to support their education and their lives outside of education. For these students, it puts an additional stressor on them.”
Norman said he and his colleagues will work to get the bill to become law.
“This is no different than when you go in to start a business, you have certain conditions you must meet before you get the money. Because the taxpayers are funding it, it should be easy to see it,” he said. “This is sacred money the taxpayers have.”
Roberson and Pittman agreed the effort could worry students and families looking at colleges.
“Pell Grants have been a lifeline for a lot of these students,” he said. “Without the Pell Grant or with significant changes to the Pell Grant, I would think we’d see a real decline in the number of students considering a higher education. That would hurt the community around us.”