06 Mar Pell and Scholarships

by Jacquie Carroll, ED.D., Campus Engagement and Education Consultant, American Student Assistance® (ASA)

Recent legislation under the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012 has brought about changes to the Pell Grant program. These changes aren’t only worrying students and college administrators alike, but they’re already impacting students. Changes included limiting students receiving Pell Grants from 18 semesters to 12 semesters—or to 600% of Pell Grant eligibility during their lifetime.

This legislation was implemented with the full knowledge that it takes the average student between four and six years to complete a degree. This is due to various school issues such as general budget cuts, staff reductions, course offerings, and students changing programs once or twice before graduating. These recent changes were applied to all students, regardless of when students received their first Pell Grant. That means unlike previous legislative changes, grandfathering wasn’t allowed.

What does this mean for students? It was anticipated that this legislative change may impact more than 100,000 students immediately. And some anticipate that these changes will have less of an impact for community college students than four-year institutions (Nelson, 2012). At the same time, there’s the expectation that transfer students will be greatly impacted. Many of these transfer students may have jumped around between several institutions in their effort to obtain a degree and this may come back to haunt them. Losing Pell Grants may add them to the more than 36 million Americans who have some college credit, but lack degree completion (Lumina Foundation, Aug. 2012).

Earning a degree appears to be more challenging than ever before—and now with less Pell, maybe even more so. Additionally, school administrators know that just because students no longer receive a Pell Grant, it doesn’t mean they no longer need the money to support their educational efforts. In the worst case scenario, it could drive students to take out more federal and private student loans. So what are students and school administrators to do?

An existing option first comes to mind: Scholarships could be a renewed resource—although getting scholarships will take time, effort, and planning for both students and administrators. Students confirm that they’re inundated with scholarship information, but in reality they may never be eligible for most of them. That makes the process frustrating and demotivating. Scholarships have been a hot topic of discussion for some time, ranging from them being an effective tool to bridge gaps in financial aid funding to the perils of actually applying for them. From students’ perspective, the problem with scholarships lies with getting them. No surprise there! According to students, in addition to the saturation of useless scholarship information, the problem is that the application process is cumbersome, and applying for more than one scholarship makes tracking difficult. And—of course—what should students write about themselves?

In order for scholarships to be practical and effective tools, colleges and administrators may need to provide some additional assistance. Some institutions are creating additional scholarship programs by partnering with local businesses. For example, Truckee Meadows Community College recently unveiled a partnership with local business, agencies, and organizations for a scholarship intern program. Instead of wages, students are eligible for a $2,550 scholarship award. In turn, they’ll complete 225 hours of site-supervised, agreed-upon learning objectives in an internship course (TMCC News, 11.29.12). Local scholarship partnerships such as this provide a win-win solution for students, institutions, and business and community partners.

Not able to create new scholarships? No problem. Instead of creating additional institutional/community scholarships, many institutions have partnered with nonprofits to provide financial wellness programs to their students, which can include scholarship resources. For example, SALTTM provides a vetted and reliable scholarship search engine and a place to manage all applications in one location. For students, the process is easy to initiate and manage. Once they’ve provided detailed demographic information, students receive scholarship notifications to their SALT page, and they can also apply for those scholarships. The process operates a lot like eHarmony, but instead being alerted to potential love interests based on ones’ background, students are alerted to scholarship interests and opportunities based on the information they provided. Personally, I think that’s just as sweet! Also, it’s very practical—no more multiple application sites, multiple email accounts, tracking, deleting, etc.

The process of identifying and applying for scholarships is just one of the hurdles to receiving one. Another huge barrier for students is the scholarship essay itself. To help with the “what to write about me” part of the process, institutions are reaching out to experts both on and off campus. On campus, English professors are including writing opportunities with real-life impact. A student narrative essay that could also be used as a foundation for scholarship applications appears to resonate more with students than just writing a narrative about an experience in nature, for instance. From a practical perspective, students complete the course objectives, but also have a good starting tool to begin applying for actual scholarships. It makes their effort real.

Off campus, there are opportunities to join webinars that showcase scholarship bloggers such as Diane Melville. Students know they’ll compete with each other based on good grades, a rigorous academic schedule, top test scores, and extracurricular activities; it can be a daunting task to write something special. At the webinars, students can ask those how-to questions. Having some help with this part of the scholarship application process both on and off campus gets students one step closer to being awarded a scholarship.

Ultimately, scholarships can provide a way to bridge some of the gaps in financial aid funding, but getting one is no easy task. The good news is that the renewed focus on this option may also help reduce students’ educational costs overall, and potentially impact loan debt. Providing students with the tools and resources to effectively use this option is vital for successful utilization of scholarships and it benefits all: students, colleges, and the community at large.