Tuesday, May 02, 2017


As easy as it can be to despair of our politics, once in a while, despite itself, Congress gets one right.  It just approved reviving summer Pell.

For a brief window during the first Obama term, students with Pell grants were able to get extra money to take classes in the summer.  The idea was to encourage rapid program completion.  But summer Pell coincided with the recession-driven enrollment boom, so it came at the exact moment that demand for regular Pell hit an all-time high.  It went away quickly, before most colleges really had the chance to adapt.  Now, with enrollments off their peaks, summer Pell is making a very welcome comeback.

Pell grants are the very best kind of financial aid, because they’re grants.  Students don’t have to pay them back.  Even students who are more debt-averse than is really in their best interest don’t have an issue with grants.  And they’re need-based, so their impact is progressive; the poorest students get the most aid.

In the years since summer Pell went away, the completion movement gained steam.  As a sector -- or what my private sector colleagues call a “space,” for some reason -- we have a greater understanding of the importance of continuity for completion than we did before.  Forcing students to go away for four months, just as they’re getting the hang of it, is often counterproductive.  Now, more students will have the option of sticking around.

Institutionally, summer Pell may help with enrollment, retention, and completion, if we respond to it in the right ways.  Educationally, it makes sense, too; I simply refuse to believe that people can’t learn between May and September.  If anything, our summer classes have higher pass rates than our semester classes do.  Part of that may be because the terms are shorter, but the principle stands.  There’s no educational argument for forcing the summer to be an academic wasteland.

I’m especially encouraged because expanding Pell to include summer indicates the conceptual possibility of changing Pell in other ways, too.  For example, right now Dual Enrollment and Early College High School programs aren’t eligible for Pell.  That doesn’t really make sense.  Programs like ECHS have been shown to increase the likelihood of low-income students eventually getting bachelor’s degrees or higher.  They’re relatively cheap, they expand access, and they can provide academic challenge for talented students in districts that may not be able to afford robust gifted-and-talented programs.  But right now, if you don’t have a philanthropist or a school district willing and able to foot the bill, ECHS students have to pay in full.  

I’ve heard of some movement, too, for making Pell available for more non-credit workforce training programs.  To the extent that those programs fit local needs, they can work wonders.  At last year’s graduation ceremony for the welding program, I saw some giddy partners of the graduates; going from minimum wage to family wage brings with it a raft of social benefits.  For a bit of Pell money, it’s a remarkable social return on investment.

So, #PellYes.  And a rare tip of the cap to Congress for doing the right thing.