Federal law limits Pell Grant eligibility
Published: Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, March 6, 2012 17:03
David Baker is the last of his kind.
The business major in his second semester at Contra Costa College is a high school dropout receiving financial aid.
He passed the required assessment test, called the Ability-to-Benefit (ATB) test, when he was a student at Central New Mexico Community College, qualifying him for a Pell Grant through FAFSA. He passed the test again when he came to CCC.
But beginning July 1, a high school diploma or its equivalent will be required for new students to receive federal aid.
The 2012 Consolidated Appropriations Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama on Dec. 23, 2011, significantly changes requirements for federal aid qualifications.
The goal is to limit federal funding to students who have not earned a bachelor's degree, taking college-level courses.
Included in the law is a mandatory high school diploma or its equivalent for students enrolling in college for the first time after July 1, 2012.
Students without a high school diploma or its equivalent who qualified for a Pell Grant and attended college prior to the implementation of the new law in July will still have the ATB option until their six-year duration window expires.
The changes also include retroactively reducing the duration of a student's eligibility for federal aid from 18 full-time equivalent semesters to 12 and increasing the award maximum per year to $5,550.
Pell Grants account for the majority of government-funded student aid at CCC, district Senior Dean of Research and Planning Tim Clow said.
"The largest, single-most important financial aid is Pell Grants," Dr. Clow said.
At CCC, 2,887 students are receiving nearly $10.4 million in Pell Grant funds this academic year out of about $11.3 million total in student aid from the state and federal governments, Clow said.
CCC Interim Dean of Students Vicki Ferguson said the changes will impact the college's community tremendously.
"It is really going to be devastating to that population that doesn't have a high school diploma or GED," she said.
Clow said that of the 1,395 new students at CCC in the 2011 fall semester, 761 self-reported they had a high school diploma and 100 more said they had a GED.
A diploma is not required for admission or graduation from CCC. The ATB test was implemented in 1996 as an alternative for students without a diploma or its equivalent who needed federal aid.
CCC matriculation services coordinator Kenyetta Tribble said students can keep retaking the ATB test until they pass it.
The ATB test will still be allowed for returning students — those who have received a grade (A through F, I or P) within two semesters of applying for Pell Grants.
She said passing the ATB test would place students in Math 115 and at the reading level for either English 142B or 110A and a writing level for English 142A or 139.
The ATB test was one of two options for students without a diploma or its equivalent. They could also receive federal aid by completing 6 units or 225 hours of college instruction.
But starting this summer, those options are gone.
African-American studies major Re Thomas said her brother at Laney College in Oakland did not qualify for financial aid this semester because he did not graduate from high school.
As a result, he took out loans and worked part time to pay for his classes.
"It made him decide he wouldn't go back next semester because they told him he could still not get financial aid," the first-semester student said. "It makes students feel undeserving because they don't have a high school diploma or GED.
"It's not right," she said. "You can't flip burgers without a degree."
Sitting in the Student Services Center in front of the Financial Aid Office on Thursday, Thomas said federal aid should be available to everyone who needs it.
"Education should be offered to everyone, especially with financial aid," she said. "Not everybody is financially set to pay for books, pay for classes and pay for transportation."
Baker said the changes to Title IV funding "help America," but student services managers disagree.
"It's huge. It's a huge impact," Ferguson said.
"Contra Costa is known as meeting students where they are and assisting them through the process to academic success," she said. "It's a roadblock."
College managers agree students would be stuck. They would be unable to pay for their education without a job, but not be able to get a job without an education.
Admissions and Records Director Michael Aldaco said, "That's scary, really scary.