Monday, September 17, 2012


Twelve Semesters

Starting this July, Pell grants have a new rule: any given student has a lifetime limit of twelve semesters.  If you can’t finish your degree within twelve semesters, you’re on your own.

The rule seemingly came out of nowhere, but it has major implications for community colleges.

That may seem counterintuitive to many, since six years (twelve semesters) sounds like plenty of time.  But it’s a bit of a time bomb for students attending part time, students starting in the ESL courses, or even students with a lot of developmental coursework.

The Feds expressed the limit in semesters, rather than credits -- I know, I know -- so it doesn’t pro-rate for students who attend part-time.  Twelve semesters means twelve semesters.  If you’re going half-time, an associate’s degree would take eight semesters, assuming no developmental courses, repeats, failures, or withdrawals.  (In the community college world, that’s assuming a lot.)  At that point, you don’t have much margin for error if you choose to go on for a bachelor’s.  

Throw in a few semesters of ESL, a semester or two of remediation, and a false start or two, and a student could easily run out of Pell well before finishing a bachelor’s.  In some cases, the student might run out even before the associate’s.  A program that goes beyond two years, like Nursing, can be an even greater challenge.

I understand the impulse behind it, at some level.  Nobody wants to encourage students to hang around forever, especially on the public dime.  But stranding students halfway through their studies doesn’t serve a useful purpose that I can see.  If you assume that every student is full-time and college-ready, twelve semesters sounds pretty generous.  But in the world of students as they actually exist, it can be pretty restrictive.

Part-time students are often older -- frequently parents -- and they’re trying to move up the occupational ladder to take care of their families.  They’re trying to work their way up; they’re about the farthest thing from the stereotypical slacker as you can find.  These are exactly the students that people who actually know them like to root for.  

To add insult to injury, the change went through without a grandfather clause.  A student who was pacing herself at half-time abruptly found herself almost out of time, on a clock that didn’t even exist when she started.  We’ve had to give some students a cold bit of news this Fall.  

The change didn’t happen in a vacuum, of course.  But it’s more objectionable than most.  Basic fairness would suggest grandfathering, especially for those who are well along in their programs. But even beyond that, it’s hard to see the point of closing doors on people who are actually working hard to improve their lots in life.

Yes, student loans are still available, and that helps.  But it’s a bit of a shell game to refer to loans as ‘aid.’  Loans have to be paid back.  And for the single Mom who takes classes at night while working crap jobs during the day, those payback schedules can be pretty daunting.

In case there’s any misunderstanding, I’m not claiming that there’s a “right” to grants.  I’m claiming that grants do a tremendous amount of good, and that cheaping out on them is a false economy.  Compared to so many of the other ways that money is spent, helping struggling adults adjust to the new economy seems to me one of the better ones.  

First summer Pell went away, then a lifetime cap was enacted.  I’m not sure what we’re punishing poor strivers for, but we should really stop.  If we need to inflict punishment somewhere, I can think of a bunch of better targets.

Wow. That will hurt enrollment.
I'm reminded of a prior DD post about political decisions that were not thought through. Perhaps this is in the same category.
That's nothing. In New Zealand they've just moved the limit from seven years regardless of qual to four years and bachelor's only. So goodbye to graduate study.
I agree with Dean Dad. This is truly awful. Now, a student's Pell grant can expire unless they graduate within twelve semesters.

This truly discriminates against part-time students, who often have family responsibilities and who must often attend evening classes because they have to work at a couple of crappy low-wage jobs simply in order to pay their bills and to be able to afford to go to school in the first place. These are the people we really want to help get through college so that they can improve their lives, and to put such an impedance in their way is truly unconscionable.

Back when I was teaching at Research Intensive Technological Institute, I remember a student who had been at the school so long that he had probably taken virtually every class that was taught there. He was from a fairly wealthy family, so he was able to pay his own way and was not there on the public dime. He was simply intellectually curious and didn't have to work, so he just hung around the campus. He was what some call the professional student. I think that many colleges and universities have one or two students like this. But eventually someone took him aside and told him that it was high time that he graduated. Which he eventually did.
Even for college ready full time students, that sounds limiting. I know someone, now a PhD physicist, who took twelve semesters to get his bachelor's degree, full time. He didn't choose physics as a major until his sophomore year (after a "physics for poets" inspired him to love the subject). If you do that, change majors to something with a strict sequence in your sophomore year, it can easily mean taking another four years to graduate. But do we want to rule out that kind of discovery and inspiration?

Also: double majors. Study abroad. Required classes not available every year, or full this year, or conflicting with another requirement. Transfer credits that transfer as electives, leaving a long list of requirements still to meet. Programs that are scheduled for ten or more semesters in the first place, like my college's engineering "three-two" program.

Sometimes it's actually the more ambitious and college-ready full time students who take longer to graduate, just because they're trying to do more. Why would we want to punish them either?
I agree that omission of a grandfather rule was thoughtless, and about what we've come to expect from the government.

But to say to an incoming freshman, here is six years of financial help, but after six years you are on your own, plan accordingly, that cannot be seen as "punishment."
Hypothetically, if we could fund people on robust grants (i.e. pay complete tuition, + books + supplies + health insurance for the family + living expenses for their family), it would make sense to provide this kind of incentive for full-time study.

Telling people that 6 years at $5550/year should be the boost they need to use higher ed to propel themselves out of poverty? Given the current costs of college, that's just sick.
Very probably the result of lobbying by interests that benefit from students taking out large loans. If you can't finish in 12 semesters, then you'll have to borrow a ton of money to complete your degree. Who might find that fact useful?
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Our system of higher education was built on the idea that people would delay having families until after their education was complete. The GI Bill was the first real crack in that facade (though married students had been going to college at night before that). We have not, over the intervening years, had a serious conversation about what is possible within the financial constraints that the taxpayers want us to abide by. Becca envisions a system where financial aid is meant to support a family as well as pay tuition -- which actually is conceivable but probably not politically possible.
And it might have unintended consequences, as it actually makes no sense to provide young people with incentives to delay school in favor of family-formation. At the same time, we have these hordes of older, returning students. Many are actually earning decent money and are not in great need of living expenses, but they do need a longer time frame in many cases.

"I’m not sure what we’re punishing poor strivers for,"

I am.
"But to say to an incoming freshman, here is six years of financial help, but after six years you are on your own, plan accordingly, that cannot be seen as "punishment.""

It's not "punishment". It's "class warfare". I'm not surprised you're 100% behind it, Edmund.

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