Imagine a situation in which every financially needy college student—even those who don’t fit the “traditional” mold of a recent high school graduate—had a predetermined pot of grant money from which to draw throughout their college enrollment. No longer would every new school year bring a host of questions and insecurity about what grant aid the student would receive. Under-resourced students and their families could proceed confidently toward graduation in a program that meets their enrollment needs, fully understanding the resources at their disposal over an extended period of time. It’s not just a pipe dream.

A helping hand

Instead of the current system of annual appropriations and readjustment, financial aid administrators have proposed creating a “Pell Well” of funds available for student use throughout the course of an undergraduate education. These funds would increase predictability for Pell-eligible students and their families, who currently must adapt to yearly fluctuations in eligibility and program funding, all while trying to estimate costs over multiple years. Students would draw funds from the well as needed (with certain restrictions) until the student either completes the academic program or runs out of Pell funds.

"Under-resourced students and their families could proceed confidently toward graduation in a program that meets their enrollment needs, fully understanding the resources at their disposal over an extended period of time. It’s not just a pipe dream."

Currently, an annual Pell Grant award covers a traditional  nine month academic calendar rather than a 12-month period. Students who want to enroll year-round often run out of Pell funds before the end of the 12-month period, forcing them to turn to loans or drop out of school instead of enrolling on an ongoing basis. Creating a flexible well of funds would facilitate and incentivize year-round enrollment, and higher retention and graduation rates. 

For the past four decades, the Federal Pell Grant program has provided more than 60 million low-income students with access to college. However, for all its success in providing basic access to higher education for low-income students, the structure of the Pell Grant program has not kept pace with the change to older, nontraditional students and newer, nontraditional programs.  The Pell Well concept is one of the most promising ways of updating and strengthening the Pell Grant program without undermining the original intent of the program—providing access to postsecondary education for qualified, low-income students.

editorial@mediaplanet.com
Justin Draeger
President and CEO, National Association of Student Financial Aid (NASFAA)