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New Federal Grant Shuts Out Some

New Federal Grant Shuts Out Some
Community College Students

By Cassie M. Chew

Thousands of community and technical college students enrolled in certificate programs won’t be eligible for $790 million in new federal financial aid grants, and a group that represents those institutions is asking the U.S. Department of Education to rethink its policy.

The new Academic Competitiveness Grant program, approved by the U.S. Congress last winter, provides additional money to Pell Grant-eligible students who completed a high school curriculum deemed “rigorous” by the Education Department.

But only students enrolled in degree-granting programs would be eligible, under interim regulations the Education Department issued in July. The rules went into effect Aug. 2, but weren’t expected to be finalized until after the comment period ended on Aug. 17.

The American Association of Community Colleges says the department is misinterpreting Congress’ intent, and says the grants should also be available to students who are enrolled in certificate programs.

“Based on the law, we think that they are eligible,” says AACC spokesman David Baime, noting that certificate-seeking students are eligible for every other category of financial aid. “We want the Department of Education to recognize that these are valuable programs.”

The new rules would exclude the more than 250,000 students who earn certificates each year in various disciplines, Baime says. AACC represents more than 1,200 regionally accredited community, junior and technical colleges across the country. 

An Education Department spokeswoman said the department would not comment on the proposal until after the Aug. 17 deadline.

The grants were signed into law in February as part of the Higher Education Reconciliation Act of 2005. The program is designed to encourage students to take more challenging high school courses, and eventually major in critical-need subjects including science, technology, engineering, math and specific foreign languages.

The Education Department estimates that 500,000 students will be eligible to receive the new grants, which includes the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) grants for third and fourth-year students.

About 13 percent of the 20,000 students enrolled at Montgomery College in Rockville, Md., are pursuing certificate programs, with many students moving on to associate and bachelor’s degree programs, says Melissa Gregory, the college’s director of financial aid.

“This law was passed so fast that the Department of Education may not have anticipated that some students from rigorous high schools might choose to start their college careers with a certificate program,” she says.

The first grants — up to $750 — will be awarded to freshmen who graduated from high school this year. Second-year college students who graduated high school in 2005 qualify for $1,300 grants.

Pell-eligible students in their third and fourth years of college study can apply for SMART grants of up to $4,000.

In addition to certificate-seeking students, part-time and nontraditional older students would not qualify for the Academic Competitiveness Grants because they are open only to new high school graduates who are attending college full time.

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