The Case for Year-Round Pell Grants | Commentary

Posted January 28, 2015 at 5:49pm

As Congress takes up reauthorization of the Higher Education Act this year, it will have to address several policy concerns, including the rising cost of college and the need to increase degree attainment rates in the U.S. Notwithstanding those concerns, college access will continue to be a major issue. How can our nation expand college opportunities to those who have long been underrepresented, including lower-income students, minorities, and those who are the first in their families to attend college, ramping up the number of degree earners?

One policy solution that can simultaneously address all these higher education challenges is to reinstate year-round Pell Grants. First introduced in 2008, the program was discontinued by Congress and the Department of Education in 2011.

Recently, Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., have done just that, introducing a bill to amend the HEA (S 108). The bill’s primary purpose is to simplify the financial aid process — a noble goal. However, recognizing the importance of flexible degree attainment, the senators also included language to reinstate year-round Pell. For non-traditional students who need to complete their degree and enter the workforce quickly, this is great news.

Earning a bachelor’s degree in fewer than four years is not a priority for the vast majority of traditional college students. For students in career-focused programs, however, it’s a very different story. They want to finish as quickly as possible. For example, at DeVry University, a career-focused institution serving non-traditional students, 47 percent of our bachelor’s degree graduates earned their degree in three years or fewer.

Why the disparity? The fact is many DeVry students are adult learners supporting families and have low or unstable incomes. Many have credits from other schools. They are eager to complete their degrees as quickly as possible so they can enter the workforce, or re-enter qualified for better jobs. Completing their education quickly means lower opportunity costs — wages foregone while they are in school.

So, they are motivated by economics to finish quicker, but how do they do it? They go year round. Rather than taking the summer off from their studies, summer becomes a third semester. By taking courses all year, they can finish nine semesters in three years, or if they have significant transfer credits, they can finish even quicker.

Students aren’t the only ones to benefit when they graduate quickly. Three-year college completion also offers huge potential benefits to society. Economist Reuven Brenner from McGill University has calculated that if just one generation of 4 million students joined the labor force one year earlier at a starting salary of $40,000, it would add $160 billion in national income per year, and generate $2.4 trillion of wealth for the nation’s economy over 40 years.

Finally, quicker degree completion can help ramp up institutional capacity and efficiency at a time when the nation needs more graduates. The fact is many public institutions are at their enrollment capacity, but only for three-quarters of the year. By operating year round, schools could more fully utilize campus facilities and faculty. And by getting each student through college quicker, institutions could educate 25 percent more students — a critical step toward tackling President Barack Obama’s 2020 goal.

Offering Pell Grants all year not only benefits students, it can also help the U.S. economy by boosting college attainment rates, speed-to-degree and institutional capacity. By recognizing and supporting students’ desire to go to school year round, policymakers can make a statement about the achievability of quicker college completion, and help shift the higher education landscape to be more productive.

Tom Babel is vice president for regulatory affairs at DeVry Education Group. Want More Stories Like This? Subscribe to our Thought Leaders Newsletter.