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Thousands of Students Left Out in Cold by Summer Pell Grant Predicament

During these cash-strapped times, 21-year-old Jasmine Burke feels like she’s in a race to get her bachelor’s degree in health education.

The junior at Georgia Southern University said becoming a grownup is calling her by name. But no one in her family has the means to help pay for her education.

“I decided not to take summer classes because I couldn’t afford it,” Burke said. She expected that she could apply for a Pell Grant, but she learned from her financial aid officer that full-time students who used the free federal funding during the fall and spring semesters could not tap into that resource during the summer terms.

Obtaining a Pell Grant this summer was out of the question.

“It was disappointing. I wanna graduate so I can get into the job field. The summer classes are expensive,” Burke said. “I only needed one class, and it cost almost $500 … to pay for that out of pocket for the science course I wanted to take; if I bought books, it would be about $800. I’ve already borrowed enough.”

“It was out of my reach,” Burke said at a bus stop on her way home from her summer job in Savannah.

Before she left the Statesboro campus, Burke sat down with a financial aid officer and concluded that these were her options. “They were saying there were loans I could take out. I already have so many loans already. I don’t want to take out the extra loan money.’’

Burke might have signed up for summer courses prior to the summer of 2013. But last year, Congress changed the eligibility standards for low-income students receiving Pell Grants. If she wanted to use the grant money in the spring and the fall semesters, she had to forgo going to school this summer.

Burke, a young woman of color, said she had friends who faced a similar dilemma of deciding whether to skip summer school or to borrow.  But many of them, she said, had family members who helped them pay for the classes. “… My dad passed away in August and my mom is unemployed. Me being the only one in the household making money and me taking summer classes just wasn’t a priority for right now,’’ Burke said.

Burke is not the only U.S. college student facing this sort of dilemma this summer. Some 145,000 low-income students across the country stewed over how to pay for college courses this summer, said Marybeth Gasman, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Some of them were full-time students like Burke, who didn’t want to risk her funding later this year. Others had attended college for five years or more.

Many people tried to blame the changes in Pell Grant eligibility funding on the Obama administration, Gasman said. But the finger-wagging should be pointed at Congress, said Gasman, a historian who specializes in studying historically Black colleges and universities.

In 2009, some 5 million college students, many of them attending historically Black colleges and community colleges, received Pell Grants, Gasman said. That number jumped to 9.12 million when President Barack Obama expanded the program. Congress noticed the increase and recognized the $18.3 billion shortfall in the budget. Rather than appropriate the funds, Congress changed the qualifications, and some 145,000 students became ineligible to receive Pell Grants during the summer terms.

The change, Gasman said, not only hurt students like Burke, but “disproportionately hurt students attending HBCUs that do the lion’s share of educating poor students.”

How the 145,000 students found the funds to go to school varies student by student. But Congress probably doesn’t “identify” with them, Gasman said, because they have a “middle-class mindset.”

Some college presidents such as Cheryl Dozier of Savannah State University saw a potential for problems before they occurred. In 2010, 1,110 students received federal Pell Grants during the summer semester. In 2011, the year Dozier was appointed interim president, that number dipped down to 941, or 169 fewer students. The number crashed to 190 students receiving summer Pell Grants in 2012. And, this summer, 185 students, who received Pell Grants, were registered, school officials say.

To bridge the gap, Dozier created a “Closing the Gap” award for graduating seniors who needed additional funds up to $1,500 to walk across the stage. To date, 33 Savannah State University students have received the awards, ranging from $65 to $1,500, said Loretta D. Heyward, the university spokeswoman.

Most of the other students there took the making-do approach and cobbled together other funding resources so they could continue with their education, said Edward Jolley Jr., the vice president of business and financial affairs at Savannah State.

“They had a year to plan by taking fewer credits, staying at home to reduce room and board, and carrying over loan funds,” he said.

Others, of course, did not continue during the summer term.

The changes in the eligibility for Pell Grants are not likely to change in the near future, Gasman said. She applauded Dozier and other university presidents for pushing for a four-year graduation program. But, in order to help students who need it, she said the alumni associations and corporate funders must step up their funding drives.

“African-Americans have $1.1 trillion of buying power. Alumnis are really one of the best resources.  A campaign is as simple as giving up Starbucks about $9 per week,” Gasman said.

As for Burke, she is hoping to graduate next year and to enter a nursing program where she can obtain another bachelor’s degree.

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