Cuts to federal Pell Grants cause trouble for low-income students

Posted by Samantha Matsumoto on Monday, Mar. 25 at 9:00 am.

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.”

  • Shocked

    Wait, how long has this guy been in school? Four years at Lane and the story makes it sound like he is taking four MORE years at U of O? He doesn’t deserve any government money with how little ambition he has. To me, it sounds like he is going to school JUST for the money. I’m sure he’s got a useless liberal arts degree, too.

    It’s people like him that keeping money away from other, younger students who need it. They should cut the Pell Grant to four years—get people in and out. This guy isn’t a heart-wrenching story at all. This guy needs to get a job and earn his own money for once. Clearly the whole school thing isn’t working out for him.

    • No.

      Ehr… did you miss the part where it said he’s a non-trad student? The guy is raising two kids, you try taking 16+credits an hour while raising two kids. I couldn’t.

      • No.

        *credit hours, not credits an hour… derp

    • HNC

      How would you know he never tried? Put your self in his shoes. Some people just don’t have a heart _ JUST SAD

  • Not Buying It.

    These students need to be responsible. The cost per credit hour at Lane is currently $90 a credit hour. for a full time student the tuition would be in the low to mid $1000s. For a semester program full time Pell has been over $2500 for years now. If Keller was a part-time student, then yes, four years would have seemed realistic to complete a two year degree at a community college, but then this would have only left him with 2 years of full time Pell used and plenty to pursue a Bach. Degree. The tuition at Oregon is in the mid $2000s for a full time student. So please tell me where $60k in student loans came from? There are so many details that are raising red flags for financial aid professionals.

    If Keller was at Lane for 4 years and Oregon for two, and maxed our his Pell eligibility, then he was full time and should not have taken 4 years to complete and associates degree at Lane. Also he would not have needed that much in loans to cover direct educational expenses. I will say it again. These students nee to be responsible.

    • Really?

      AGREED. thanks for the info on the cost of tuition. There are definitely red flags all over that story. 60k in loans? federal loans? and not even a graduate student? this is what happens when students use part time Pell awards and all the loan money offered, change majors, have excessive withdraws. The student did plan though.. he figured out real quick the most he can get for the least amount of classes taken/billed per semester. He should have had the sense to carry a real job to take care of this housing needs and his children and carefully plan out his academics without using student loans as welfare. It is troubling. very troubling. But when you think about people using welfare, social securiy, financial aid, charity etc etc no wonder people get feed up and go to the extreme when CUTTING funding. How does the gov’t cut abuse out of the financial aid program and strengthen it for those who need it? Why can a 65 year old on social security get student financial aid? Students do need to be responsible. Gov’t needs to be smarter.
      I don’t buy the “I didn’t know” part. Students don’t seek the information or read what is in front of them. Application, satisfactory academic progress, maximum time frames, maximum loan amounts. It is all out there! .

      • Not Buying It!

        The government needs to stop giving refund checks from financial aid. They will save millions, this way. Student should only be able to receive funds up to their direct education costs. I don’t know why this has not been done yet!

  • No.

    Call me crazy.. What if instead of giving individuals loans and grants to go to school, why doesn’t the government use that money to directly fund state schools (and stop giving grants for students to go to private schools). Maybe then tuition wouldn’t be so high in the first place.

  • Been thru it

    It is so interesting to see a bunch of people judge someone else when you don’t even understand the individuals situation.

  • jlc

    Wow…no wonder people become stuck in poverty…its because of people like you that believe that because someone is poor they should stay that way and do not deserve to receive an education. How will this man be able to provide for his children and become a positive roll model for them if we continue to take away from those that actually need the funding to crawl out of the dark depths of poverty. We need to make cuts to those who have more than their fair share of financial gain…do our government officials really need to ride first class, throw elaborate parties, and receive six figure salaries? It seems to me that cuts need to be made elsewhere and not on those who need it the most.