I’ve been following the discussion about the federal Pell Grant with a great deal of concern.
Last June Congress made several changes to Pell Grant. A family that earns $23,000 to $32,000 a year can no longer receive the maximum grant of $5,550. Think about that for a minute. That change meant 218 Hinds students in that income range no longer received the maximum grant that pays for tuition, books and room and board.
The number of semesters of eligibility was cut from 18 to 12. That particularly hurts older students coming back to college to retrain for a new career after a job loss. Because of that change, 2,960 Mississippi students lost Pell eligibility in fall 2012, including 468 at Hinds.
And folks without a high school diploma or GED can no longer use Pell Grant to fund training for programs like welding, jobs that are in demand and pay well.
The Pell Grant’s importance to many Hinds’ students can’t be overstated. More than 80 percent of our students receive some type of financial aid. Over the past four years, as the recession began and deepened, the number of Hinds students receiving Pell Grants has grown 23 percent.
But I have a more personal reason for my interest. In 1976 I was among the first to receive one of the grants, then called the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant before it was renamed after Rhode Island Sen. Claiborne Pell in 1980, the year I graduated from college. I was what’s known as a first-generation college student.
As a young person from a very blue-collar family – my dad had an eighth-grade education - I was dependent on Pell Grant and whatever other aid I could pull together to pay for college.
Fast forward about 30 years: my daughter, a young single mother, finished her nursing degree at Hinds and started working a few months ago, something that would have been very difficult if not impossible without Pell dollars.
The Pell Grant, for many of us, is a life-changer. It’s about opportunity to better oneself.
I talk to lots of Hinds students and hear their stories. Many of our students are nontraditional students; the average age of a Hinds student is 26.7. When I see them at graduation, many times they are greeted by spouses and children as they exit the auditorium, usually with relieved grins on their faces.
They are taking the Hinds degrees they earned and paid for with the help of Pell Grants and turning them into financial support for their families as well as having the satisfaction of knowing they have received an education no one can ever take away from them.
What will college prospects be like for people like them, like the young person I once was, if Pell restrictions tighten more? It’s a future that causes me concern.
Do you have a Pell Grant story you’d like to share? Respond to my blog below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cathy Hayden, a former education reporter, is Public Relations director at Hinds Community College.