After being cut from the budget under the Obama administration in 2011, year-round Pell Grants are being reinstated for fiscal year 2017, due to legislation by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D–Mich.) included in the most recent federal appropriations bill.
Pell Grants, named after U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, were created in 1965 by the Higher Education Act and are intended to provide financial aid to low- and moderate-income students pursuing Bachelor’s degrees. Unlike student loans, Pell Grants do not have to be repaid –– although the amount generally increases every year, the maximum grant for the 2016-2017 academic year is $5,815.
Previously, students could take out only one Pell Grant per academic year, to be used over two semesters. With year-round Pell Grants, however, students may use Pell Grants to fund a third summer semester as well, allowing them to take out up to two $5,920 grants in a year.
In a press release, Stabenow praised the passage of the bill, saying it created opportunities for those who have few.
“I am committed to supporting the 257,000 students in Michigan who rely on Pell Grants to afford a college education,” she said. “This bill will provide more students with a fair shot to go to college and get ahead, regardless of their financial situation.”
According to the press release, 35,000 students in Michigan used year-round Pell Grants before they were cut. The release also states that students who take classes year-round are three times more likely to complete a degree.
Year-round Pell Grants have received praise from both sides of the aisle –– Republican Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives, said having year-round grants “makes a lot of sense,” and President Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, criticized the two-semester system as restrictive.
“It kind of speaks to the issue of the federal government trying to be a top-down, one-size-fits-all solution to everything,” she said during a discussion at Valencia College. “Our orientation really does need to around flexibility, and meeting the needs of students at their level.”
This is not Stabenow’s first time working on Pell Grants. In 2015, Stabenow sponsored a bill –– although it did not pass –– that would have guaranteed qualifying eighth-grade students at least two years of Pell Grant funding in college.
In an article for the Detroit Free Press, Donald Heller, the dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University, praised the bill, saying students needed to be aware of the college application process earlier.
“The Early Pell Promise Act would incentivize students to take the steps necessary to prepare themselves academically for college while they still have time to do so,” he wrote. “The earlier students are given information about financial aid options and benefits of postsecondary education, the more likely they are to finish high school and go to college.”
This year, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald noted in a January interview that 17 percent of students at the University were eligible for Pell Grants in 2016, up from 15 percent in 2015.
In past months, Pell Grants have been in the public eye for a different reason. President Donald Trump’s budget proposal could eliminate or downsize the grants altogether, in addition to other programs aimed at supporting low-income students. Work-study programs are also threatened; the federal work-study initiative spends nearly $1 billion to provide college students with part-time jobs related to their studies, according to its website.
In an earlier interview in March, Public Policy senior Rowan Conybeare, chair of the University’s chapter of College Democrats, emphasized the importance of work study at the University and discussed the potential withdrawal of Pell Grant funds.
“At UM alone, 16 percent of students received the Pell Grant in 2014-2015,” she said. “In the long term, this will only serve to increase inequalities in higher education.”
LSA senior Enrique Zalamea, president of the University’s chapter of the College Republicans, disagreed in an earlier interview the reduction in spending came from a surplus in funding and so the cuts are not as severe as some may think.
“Pell Grants are by far the largest single expenditure in the education budget, with an annual $28 billion,” Zalamea said. “A $3.9-billion reduction from their surplus is just a drop in the bucket compared to what is already being spent now.”