Two terms after he found out he had lost eligibility for the Pell Grant, Jay Keller was homeless. During the winter of 2012, the University of Oregon student relied on local shelters for food and lodging for himself and his two elementary school-aged sons, struggling to make it by after Keller lost over $6,000 of the financial aid he had been receiving.
It had never been explained to Keller that his eligibility for the Pell Grant could expire. However, after attending the UO for two years after transferring from Lane Community College, where he had been a student for four years, he received a letter saying Congress had reduced Pell Grant eligibility for the 2012-2013 school year.
“I got this weird letter,” Keller recalled. “I didn’t really understand it.”
After investigating the matter, it became clear — Keller was no longer eligible to receive Pell Grants or federal loans.
Keller is one of the estimated 100,000 students in the U.S. who were affected by Pell Grant cuts after Congress reduced eligibility for the grant in 2011. Under the new guidelines, students are only eligible for 12 semesters of Pell aid as opposed to the original 18.
For students who graduate in under six years, this is not a problem. Nontraditional students like Keller, who often take longer to graduate after transferring from community college, can be deeply impacted.
UO Director of Financial Aid and Scholarship Jim Brooks said that few students at the UO are impacted by the cuts, as most graduate in under six years. But for the students who have lost eligibility, the impact can be significant, Brooks said.
For someone like Keller, who was cut off terms before finishing his degree, losing the aid can affect how they finish school.
“If you get to the point where you only have a year or two left before you graduate, that does impact what you do and how you finish that year,” Brooks said.
According to Brooks, the UO is less impacted by the cuts than schools in areas with higher poverty rates. Although there is no data for the UO proving that low income stories are more affected by the cuts, Brooks said it would not surprise him.
“They don’t have all of the resources as (wealthier students) and they’re trying to cover the costs themselves,” Brooks said.
For Keller, the financial aid he received is what made attending college possible.
“That was the only option I ever had, to get help from FAFSA to receive (financial aid) to go to school,” Keller said.
The grants and federal loans he received seemed like the answer to his financial situation. While attending LCC, he received enough money per term to attend school and put his two sons through daycare.
“It seemed like a dream,” Keller said. “It seemed almost never-ending.”
There were no answers to be found when Keller lost his financial aid. Ineligible for federal aid and unable to take out loans due to his credit score, Keller had few options. Frustrated, he wrote and called his government officials, but they were unresponsive and did not address his needs.
“Right now it’s affecting me deeply … and there’s no one to talk to,” Keller said.
Thanks to “Home for the Holidays” — a community program which helps families without the financial means rent housing — Keller and his sons are no longer homeless. Keller is completing his last year for his bachelor’s degree at the UO and has accumulated over $60,000 in debt.
According to Brooks, the future of the Pell Grant remains uncertain. It is funded for the 2013-2014 school year, but after that Congress could make more cuts, meaning implications for more students.
“It used to be that Pell was the one thing you never worried about being cut because no one wanted to touch Pell,” Brooks said. “That’s no longer the case.”