By Tom Hilliard
Congress usually gets attention when members wage war on the floor. But the House recently passed a federal budget bill that will do college students around the country a huge favor: extending Pell grants for year-round study. New York should follow suit by adopting this reform for its own need-based financial aid program, the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).
Most Americans – including some low-income college students – probably don’t even realize that federal Pell grants only cover college expenses incurred in the fall and spring semesters. It may seem like a harmless historical quirk tied to our nation’s agricultural heritage, but discouraging college students from enrolling in the summer semester is a terrible policy. That’s because time is the enemy of college completion, especially for students at community colleges.
About 45 percent of community college students nationally leave without a degree; not coincidentally, they are far more likely than students at other colleges to come from low-income households and rely on financial aid to pay for college expenses. The longer it takes them to graduate, the more financial pressure low-income students face to provide for themselves and their families. That’s why financial stress is a major cause of dropout.
Year-round Pell grants make it easier for students, especially those in community college, to enroll in the summer semester, as well as the winter intersession. This reform allows students to accelerate credit accumulation and get to a degree faster. “Recent research suggests that undergraduates who attend summer school have better retention rates thereafter,” reports the highly respected research group MDRC, “and are significantly more likely to complete a degree.”
A 21st century financial aid program would make no distinction between semesters. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s newly enacted Excelsior Scholarship Program already points the way. Instead of requiring 15 credits each semester to maintain eligibility, Excelsior requires 30 combined credits each year. Students can take some of those courses over the summer semester. The 30-credit requirement is still too high a bar to help working students, but at least it’s structured flexibly.
TAP, on the other hand, lags behind. This vital need-based aid program, which helps almost 300,000 undergraduate students in New York pay for college each year, only covers fall and spring semesters. The governor and State Legislature should bring TAP into the 21st century by allowing any credits earned in the summer semester or winter intersession – whether full time or part time – to qualify for TAP eligibility.
Fixing TAP to better meet the needs of New York’s students will require new legislation and an upfront budget allocation. Over time, however, the cost is likely to be minimal, since students will essentially be accelerating their study rather than taking extra courses. Not only will students benefit – thanks to quicker graduations, lower expenses and less stress – but so will their local communities and future employers.
Tom Hilliard is a senior researcher at the Center for an Urban Future.