House GOP Bill Would Require Non-Completers to Repay Pell Grants

By Allie Bidwell and Joelle Fredman, Communications Staff

Higher education advocates are condemning a bill introduced in the House of Representatives last week, which would require low-income students who do not finish their programs of study in a certain amount of time to repay their Pell Grants.

The bill – dubbed the Pell for Performance Act – was introduced Wednesday by Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL) and Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC). A similar bill of the same name was introduced last Congress, but did not move out of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training. And while the new bill is unlikely to move through Congress, particularly while lawmakers continue their work on tax reform, it could be an indication of conservative Republicans' thinking in the Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization process.

"I can't imagine a proposal like this getting widespread traction on either side of the aisle," said Jessica Thompson, policy and research director at the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS). "The bill is incredibly extreme and would be absolutely devastating for Pell Grant students."

Rooney said in a statement that the bill is intended to "motivate" students to graduate within six years. If students are unable to do so, the Pell Grant would be converted into an unsubsidized Direct Loan, which the student would then have to repay.

"This act will focus efforts of both colleges and students to complete their degrees in a timely manner as well as bring forth more bang for the taxpayer's buck," Rooney said. "It is important for Pell Grants to be accessible to students who need them, and are committed to graduating and joining the workforce."

Higher education access advocates, thought leaders, and others have said, however, that the bill would do a poor job of improving performance and helping low-income students complete their programs. In fact, they say, it could do just the opposite.

"We all know that college and higher education are not designed as a guarantee, not everybody is going to be able to succeed," Thompson said. "To heap that additional risk on our most vulnerable students, that makes no sense – not for students, not for the economy."

Justin Draeger, president of NASFAA, said that while encouraging timely completion is an important goal, there are better ways to move in that direction than penalizing some of the most vulnerable students. For example, he said, implementing a Pell Grant "bonus," through which students enrolling in enough credits to graduate on time receive an increased grant award, would be a better option.

"Millions of students each year depend on Pell Grants to get them to and through college," Draeger said. "Further penalizing students who might leave school for any number of reasons is the wrong direction. We are actively working with lawmakers now to find a way to incentivize progression in a responsible way."

Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, noted in a blog post that there are already performance requirements associated with maintaining a Pell Grant.

"If the representatives' concern is that students make very slow progress through college and waste taxpayer funds, a better option would be to gradually ramp up the current performance requirements for satisfactory academic progress," he wrote. "These requirements, which are typically defined as a 2.0 GPA and completing two-thirds of attempted credits, already trip up a significant share of students."

Kelchen also warned that this bill may deter students from continuing their education.

"This could also have additional negative ramifications for students who stop out of college due to family issues, the need to support a family, or simply realizing that they weren't college ready at the time," he said. "Asking a 30-year-old adult to repay additional student loans (when he may have left in good standing) under this groan [grant-to-loan] program would probably reduce the number of working adults who go back and finish their education."

Kelchen added that he was skeptical about whether the Department of Education (ED) and its contracted loan servicers could efficiently manage this type of program, referencing ED's difficulty managing a similar program through which TEACH Grants are converted to loans in certain circumstances.

Kelchen said he would expect "a sizable number of students to incorrectly have Pell Grants convert to loans (and vice versa)."

"I appreciate these two representatives' faith in Federal Student Aid and servicers to get everything right, but that is a difficult ask," he continued.

Carrie Warick, director of policy and advocacy for the National College Access Network, noted that there are many reasons students might press pause on their education – such as family commitments, financial struggles, or a lack of student service resources from the institution – which would not be considered exceptions under Rooney's bill.

"This bill is designed in a way that holds the student 100 percent accountable for whether or not they complete," Warick said. "There are many reasons why a student may enroll and find that higher education is a struggle and not get to the end of their program. And some of those factors come down to the institution, not to the student."


Publication Date: 11/21/2017

Helen F | 11/22/2017 12:30:44 PM

This bill reveals either a stunning lack of understanding of the challenges faced by low-income students or a willful desire to dissuade them from accessing post-secondary education. I'm not sure which is worse, to be frank.

David S | 11/21/2017 1:9:01 PM

I've seen bad financial aid proposals in my day, but this is, as Boon says to Katie after the toga party in Animal House, "a new low." If these two members of Congress want to send a message that financially needy students should just avoid college altogether, this is a perfect way to do it. And besides, based on everything I've read the past few years, when a student doesn't graduate, it's the college's fault. So why punish the student?

A new level of absurdity. Can't wait to see what's next.

James C | 11/21/2017 12:11:57 PM

In that case i would make more sense to eliminate Pell, increase loan limits and forgive a sizable portion of loans upon graduation.

Richard H | 11/21/2017 11:18:20 AM

I think most would agree that this bill has no legs but the thought behind the bill is very much on the minds of those actually paying the college bill and getting a poor and less than acceptable return on the investment. While better prepared students helps it is not the whole answer as "life" shows up and disrupts ones plans to not finish. I have never spoken to a student who signs up for college actually planning to fail. The persistence and completion discussions will continue but this approach will not survive. While paying a bonus to those who complete may sound silly as we are paying them to do what they should be doing in the first place, it seems more rational to reward rather than punish. Expect higher grades and tighten the SAP process and we may see a different and better results.

Theodore M | 11/21/2017 8:26:06 AM

What an outstanding way to keep a perpetual serf class.

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