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Published: Friday, 12/16/2011

Students in college for more than 6 years to potentially lose Pell grant


WASHINGTON  — College students taking longer than six years to obtain their undergraduate degree would have their Pell grants cut off next school year under a $1 trillion budget bill passed Friday in the House.

Millions of students each year receive Pell grants, which are offered to low-income students and don’t have to be paid back.

The bill keeps the maximum grant award at $5,550, but seeks to save $11 billion over the next decade in Pell dollars, in part, by reducing the maximum number of years the grant can be received from nine to six.

It’s estimated that about 100,000 students would be affected by the change, said Amy Wilkins, the vice president for government affairs and communications at the advocacy group Education Trust. Students who take that long to get a degree typically are either transfer students who don’t receive full credit for previous coursework or those working and supporting a family, Wilkins said. Some, she said, will be surprised to learn they may have to come up with thousands of dollars to make up the difference.

“For those 100,000 kids, it’s pretty bad,” Wilkins said.

The bill also reduces the income level under which a student will automatically be eligible to receive the maximum Pell grants from $30,000 to $23,000. And, it requires recipients to have a high school diploma, GED certificate or complete a homeschooling program to receive a Pell grant.

As more low-income students have enrolled in college during a weak economy, spending on Pell Grants has exploded, nearly doubling in just over two years to $34.8 billion. In 2008-2009, according to data collected by the College Board, 6.2 million students received Pell Grants averaging $2,945; in 2010-2011 9.1 million received grants averaging $3,828.

In other education areas, popular initiatives for special-needs children and disadvantaged schools were basically frozen in the bill, and Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative, which provides grants to winners in exchange for reforms the administration favors, would absorb a more than 20 percent cut.

The bill next goes to the Senate, which was expected to pass it on Saturday.

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