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What Good Is New Summer Pell Money if Students Can’t Use It?

Congress authorized year-round Pell grants, but the money’s unlikely to flow this summer.

The semester is winding down and summer is coming, but don’t get too excited about that recently passed summer Pell budget — it looks like it won’t become a reality for most students until summer of 2018.

Educators cheered a budget extension passed by Congress last month, which restored “year-round” Pell. The change is huge for low-income students, who can now get summer college courses covered by the needs-based federal financial aid program. That can make it more likely that they’ll graduate.

But it seems doubtful that the new aid will be available this summer. The Education Department is supposed to issue guidance on how colleges can start distributing the aid, but not until July 1, and that won’t give them enough time to put systems in place to make it happen.

“The money was appropriated for this fiscal year [which ends September 30] so there was a hope that it could be used for this summer,” said Kelly McManus, director of government affairs at The Education Trust. “But given that they won’t get guidance until July, I would be hard pressed to see how they could use it.”

A check with several financial aid directors found that most agree — the guidance simply will come too late in the game.

They are preparing for next summer, however. More than 600 students who are eligible for Pell enrolled in classes this summer at Clayton State University in Georgia, but will likely have to take out loans to pay for them because they have exhausted all the Pell they can use for this year, said Lakisha Sanders, Clayton’s director of financial aid.

Still, the college is getting ready to launch an awareness campaign in the fall when most students return. They’ll be using all the publicity tools at their disposal — emails, texts, PowerPoint presentations and posters on campus, as well as post cards and phone calls to families, according to Stephen Schultheis, Clayton’s vice president for enrollment management.

Since the budget agreement only lasts through September 30, Congress will be back at it after the August recess, trying to hammer out a new agreement. That raises the question of whether year-round Pell will wither away before anyone gets to use it.

“Anything can happen but I think it is very, very unlikely that Congress will back off on this,” said Jessica Thompson, policy and research director at the Institute for College Access and Success. “It is very, very popular with institutions and has bipartisan support; and the [Trump] administration has indicated support.”

Nonetheless, educators note that President Obama hadn’t intended to curtail year-round Pell in 2011 — but it happened in budget negotiations with the Republican-led Congress that year.

“I don’t believe the intent is to bring it back for just one year,” said Ralph Buxton, financial aid director at the Borough of Manhattan Community College at the City University of New York, “but Obama had to bargain it away, and in this environment everything’s so unsure.”

The push for college completion has increased in the past several years, however, and research indicates that students who take summer classes are more likely to graduate, so colleges hope it will become a permanent part of the financial aid landscape.

One thing year-round Pell has going for it is that the change does not increase the maximum amount of Pell money that a student can receive in his or her lifetime. The change simply provides flexibility for when a student can use it.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Higher Education.

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