Need-Based Aid

While the Trump administration’s budget raids $3.9 billion in discretionary Pell Grant funding in fiscal year 2018 and remains silent on Pell Grant mandatory funding, House Republicans on the Education and Workforce Committee have made clear their plan to eliminate all $65 billion in mandatory Pell Grant funding over ten years.

This House plan to eliminate mandatory Pell funding would have profoundly harmful effects for students and put college further out of reach for millions of Americans. Mandatory funding currently pays for $1,060 of the current maximum Pell Grant (almost one fifth of the $5,920 grant in school year 2017-18), which already covers the lowest share of the cost of attending college in over 40 years.  

The $5.9 billion in mandatory Pell Grant funding in FY 2018 alone is the equivalent of the average Pell Grant awards for 1.6 million students—one in five students receiving Pell Grants. This is more than all the Pell Grant recipients attending college in Texas and Florida combined (1.2 million students).

Prior harmful cuts to Pell Grants, combined with an improving economy, have reduced program costs and created temporary reserve Pell Grant funding. Student advocates and more than 100 members of Congress have called for using this reserve to restore some of the lost purchasing power of Pell Grants and to reinstate access to grants year round. Rather than invest these reserve funds in Pell Grants for students, the president’s budget simply cuts $3.9 billion in FY 2018. The House plan that would restore grants year round while cutting $65 billion over 10 years means Congress will almost certainly drain the reserve funds, briefly hiding the full magnitude and consequences of eliminating mandatory Pell Grant funding.

The House proposal to eliminate all mandatory funding would cut Pell Grant funding by $5.9 billion in FY 2018 alone. Even if Congress used all the Pell Grant reserve funds to replace the Pell mandatory funding in FY 2018, it would lead to a $2.7 billion Pell Grant funding gap the next year (FY 2019). To close this gap, Congress would have to eliminate grants entirely for more than 700,000 students or cut all students’ grants by an average of almost $350, or both eliminate and cut grants. The funding gap would increase each year, requiring even more severe Pell Grant cuts going forward.

It is unconscionable to create a Pell Grant funding crisis by eliminating all mandatory funding and try to mask it using the program’s temporary reserve. Rather than making deep cuts to Pell Grants, Congress should instead invest existing Pell Grant funding in helping students whose urgent needs include restored access to grants year round, an increase in the maximum award, and an extension of the grant’s inflation adjustments that expire after this year (FY 2017). 

Graphics provided by Young Invincibles.

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Debbie Cochrane, TICAS vice president, provided expert testimony on college affordability before a joint hearing of the California Assembly’s Higher Education Committee and Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance on Monday, February 27. Her testimony described which students face the greatest affordability barriers, and included new TICAS research showing the severity of the affordability problem for California’s low-income students, and why free tuition is not the solution. (Debbie Cochrane's testimony starts at the 20:35 mark.)

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Both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 California state budget agreements contained crucial and long-overdue increases to need-based financial aid, including Cal Grants. Those investments are helping to make college more accessible for thousands of low-income Californians, though severe affordability gaps remain for the state’s lowest income students.

The good news is that the legislature can continue closing those gaps in 2016-17, and there are resources available to do so right in financial aid’s backyard.

The Middle Class Scholarship (MCS) program was created in 2013 to reduce tuition for middle-income students at the University of California and the California State University who were ineligible for grant aid yet unable to comfortably afford tuition. Last year, lawmakers downsized the program in order to bring eligibility terms more in line with Cal Grants and to exclude students with substantial financial resources, resulting in projected savings of $112 million for 2016-17.

Yet it appears that the program still has more money than it needs, and that even more savings could be achieved without affecting MCS recipients. In both of the years that the Middle Class Scholarship has been available, there have been far fewer eligible applicants than anticipated. Still-nascent awareness about the program could explain the underutilization in 2014-15 – the first year of implementation. But even in the wake of concerted efforts by the California Student Aid Commission and California public colleges to bolster outreach to students and families, the program still has a significant surplus in 2015-16.

When the MCS has a surplus, it means that dollars intended to help Californians afford college are being returned to the state’s coffers. For 2016-17, we project that about $41 million will go unused. Combined with the 2016-17 budget savings from the eligibility changes agreed to last year, that’s a total of about $153 million previously scheduled to be spent on the MCS in 2016-17 that will not be spent on the MCS. By 2017-18, when the Middle Class Scholarship will be fully phased in, this amount could grow to $200 million or more.*

As we’ve previously argued, savings from the Middle Class Scholarship program should remain in financial aid and be reinvested in Cal Grants specifically. Some of it already has been: for instance, the 2015-16 budget, which scaled back MCS eligibility, also increased the annual number of Competitive Cal Grants, which serve students who do not transition straight from high school to college. However, far more could be done given the amount of MCS savings. The $41 million surplus in 2016-17 could increase the Cal Grant B access award, which helps low-income students pay for non-tuition costs of college, by $175.  Alternatively, it could increase the number of new Competitive awards available annually by nearly 5,700.** The legislature could triple those increases by reinvesting all of the MCS savings – the surplus as well as ongoing savings realized through eligibility changes – into Cal Grants. Both the Cal Grant B access award and Competitive Cal Grants serve the state’s lowest income students, but not nearly well enough.

For more on how and why to deepen investment in the Cal Grant program, see the report released by TICAS and twenty other organizations last week.
 

* Projections of future spending are based on 2015-16 MCS award utilization. Projections reflect the scheduled phase-in of award coverage, from 50 percent in 2015-16 to 100 percent in 2017-18.  

** Projections of 2016-17 Cal Grant awards and dollars are based on data from the California Department of Finance: California Student Aid Commission, The Cal Grant Chart: Baseline Budget Forecast thru end of Sep 2015 - updated November 20, 2015.

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Earlier today, California Governor Jerry Brown released his proposed budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year, and it includes some much-needed resources for higher education. For the state’s public universities it provides new funding, contingent upon UC and CSU keeping tuition flat, and it supplies community colleges with more funding, including $200 million to invest in student success. Within financial aid programs, the budget plan includes a boost to the Middle Class Scholarship program. Adding the Governor’s proposal to the State Senate Democrats’ and the State Assembly Speaker’s plans, it is certain that 2015 is going to be an important year for higher education. It is now clear that college affordability is a universal priority, and that the Governor, Assembly, and Senate all want to do more to help low-income students pay for college. That is great news. What is also clear is that those parties disagree on the best way to do this. Here is what we at TICAS see as the top two priorities for new financial aid investments:

1. Help more eligible students get Cal Grant awards. Less than one quarter of the lowest income students in California who apply for federal aid receive a Cal Grant. For students who don’t apply within a year of graduating high school, there are only 22,500 grants available, and there are hundreds of thousands of eligible applicants. This means that the odds of an eligible applicant getting a Cal Grant are lower than the odds of getting into an Ivy League school. The students turned away empty handed have an average family income less than $21,000 and a family size of three.

2. Increase the size of the Cal Grant B access award. Total college costs go beyond tuition and fees – textbooks, food, housing, and transportation are all necessary to be a successful student. The Cal Grant B access award provides needy students – many with family incomes several thousand dollars below the poverty level – with resources to pay for these crucial college costs. While important progress was made in 2014, the award still lags far behind where it should be. Adjusted for inflation, the original access award would today have a value of over $6,000, almost four times today’s maximum award of $1,648.

College isn’t easily affordable these days for many families, but for some, costs are an insurmountable barrier to getting to college and graduating. Research shows that college costs comprise the largest share of family income for the lowest income students, and low-income students are much more likely to graduate with debt than their higher income peers. Need-based financial aid – like the Cal Grant program – can help to bring higher education within reach for these families. Yet hundreds of thousands of the students least able to afford college do not receive state grants simply because there are not enough. And the stagnation of Cal Grant B access awards means that on average the lowest income Cal Grant recipients receive smaller grants than higher income recipients. These are critically important points that must remain front and center as the debate around higher education investments evolves. We look forward to working with the Governor and Legislature to shape a 2015-16 budget that strengthens college affordability for the students who need the help most. - Debbie Cochrane and Laura Szabo-Kubitz

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When too many borrowers default on their student loans, colleges can lose eligibility for federal aid. Colleges with a cohort default rate (CDR) above 40% lose eligibility to offer federal loans, and colleges with three consecutive CDRs at or above 30% lose eligibility to offer both loans and federal Pell Grants.

While some question the wisdom of tying colleges’ eligibility for federal grants to the outcomes of students who borrow federal loans, the link between Pell Grants and CDRs is incredibly important. That’s because federal taxpayers invest tens of billions of dollars in Pell Grants, and CDRs are the primary means of assessing whether colleges are a good investment for federal aid. Colleges can already avoid sanctions through challenges and appeals when relatively few of their students borrow.

To avoid losing access to Pell Grants, the most common form of financial aid for community college students, many schools are examining what they can do to help students avoid default. However, other colleges are citing fears of such sanctions for their decision to stop offering federal loans altogether - even schools that are at very low risk of sanctions. Cutting off access to federal student loans in this way is a problem because it forces students who can’t otherwise afford to stay in school to turn to much riskier types of borrowing, or to reduce their odds of completion by cutting back on classes, working long hours, or dropping out altogether.

Concerns about CDR sanctions have led some to argue that colleges’ eligibility for federal grants should not be tied to an outcome measure for federal loans, and that delinking grants from CDR sanctions might stop colleges from pulling out of the federal loan program. But if the goal is to ensure students are well served and have access to federal loans when they need them, then the logic behind arguments to delink Pell and CDR sanctions falls short on multiple fronts.

  • It wrongly presumes that default rates are entirely out of colleges’ control. In reality, colleges have a number of tools to prevent defaults and keep CDRs within acceptable levels. Given the severe consequences for each individual student who defaults, it’s imperative that colleges use every tool in their toolbox to keep borrowers on track. But as the New York Times recently editorialized, “[W]hat is likely to persuade colleges to deploy these tools in the first place is the threat of losing federal aid if they do not.” Indeed, the threat of losing eligibility for Pell Grants is focusing colleges on what more than can do to keep their students out of default.
  • With no incentive for colleges to keep students out of default, they will invest less in default prevention. This is not a statement about the character of student services professionals at community colleges, but rather about the obstacles they will face when trying to convince college leaders how scarce (and decreasing) resources should be spent. And when loan defaults increase as a result, the college will lose eligibility to offer loans.  So while colleges may be less likely to pull out of the loan program proactively if Pell and CDR sanctions are delinked, they will be more likely to be forced out of the loan program based on their default rate. The threat of losing federal loan eligibility is not going to be enough of an incentive for colleges to focus on keeping defaults down if they’re already considering opting out of the loan program. The end results? First, more community college students in default, and then far more without any access to federal student loans.

The upshot: delinking Pell and CDR sanctions will not help students.  Most community college students do not borrow federal loans. But students who do need to borrow should have access to federal loans, and it’s entirely appropriate to hold colleges deemed worthy of taxpayer investment by the federal government accountable.

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The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently released a report that explores the growth in the Pell Grant program between 2006-07 and 2010-11, citing factors such as the economic downturn and legislated policy changes. We are planning to dig deeper into the CBO’s analysis over the coming weeks, but wanted to highlight one important point in the report.

Although the cost of the Pell Grant program increased substantially between 2006-07 and 2010-11, that pace of growth is not expected to continue. In fact, CBO projects almost no annual growth in Pell Grant program costs between 2012-13 and 2023-24, after adjusting for inflation. Over that entire 11-year period, the program’s costs are only projected to increase by 1% in real terms.

It’s clearly time for policymakers to stop asking whether Pell Grants are sustainable and focus instead on whether they’re sufficient. Even after recent increases, the maximum grant covers the smallest share of the cost of attending a four-year public college since the start of the program. Pell Grant recipients are more than twice as likely as other students to have to borrow to pay for college. The CBO data drive home the need for a comprehensive approach to financial aid and higher education policy, so that all students who are willing to study hard can afford to go to college and graduate.

For more information about Pell Grants, please visit TICAS’ Pell Grant Resource Page: http://www.ticas.org/pellgrant_resources.vp.html. For TICAS’ recommendations for increasing the effectiveness of Pell Grants, see our white paper at http://www.ticas.org/pub_view.php?idx=873.  

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