The possibility of Congress cutting funding for the national Pell Grant program dominated discussions last week at the annual convention of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators in Boston. From general sessions to committee meetings, finding ways to dissuade lawmakers from reducing Pell Grants was a major topic.
Pell Grants are usually part of a larger financial aid package for students, including athletes. They can be particularly important to athletes in sports outside of football and basketball where full scholarships are not typically awarded.
The program, begun more than 30 years ago to help make college more accessible to low-income students, awarded more than 8 million students nearly $30 billion in aid in 2009-10. Grants are awarded on a need basis with the current annual limit of $5,500. The Department of Education estimated that 76% of those recipients had a total family income at or below $30,000.
A budget passed this year by the House of Representatives would cut the maximum grant by 45% and restrict eligibility by 1.5 million students.
Athletic departments large and small would feel the pain of grant reductions.
Few people realize the high percentage of college student-athletes who receive Pell Grants as part of their overall financial aid package. People have been bombarded with information in recent months about what athletic scholarships do and do not cover in terms of college expenses. The news stories rarely mention the fact that a substantial number of student-athletes are currently able to augment their athletic scholarship money with Pell Grant money.
Many college athletic officials realize that athletic grants-in-aid as defined by the NCAA do not really cover all of the costs associated with attending college. This recognition is why the NCAA around 15 years ago established two funds that are set aside to help with special needs. Member schools can apply for these funds on a case-by-case basis. One of the funds provides money if a student-athlete needs a winter coat to keep warm or a dressy outfit to attend an awards banquet. The other fund provides travel expenses for special circumstances when a student-athlete has to go home quickly in an emergency situation.
Many student-athletes would not be able to pay all of their monthly living expenses without help from Pell Grant money. This became more important about 15 years ago when the NCAA ordered its members to close athletic dorms which only housed and fed athletes.
The number of Pell Grant recipients at Florida State has risen from 5,000 to 9,000 over the past five years, representing roughly 22% of the total student body. In 2010, 135 Seminoles athletes received just over $565,000 in Pell Grant assistance.
“For particularly low-income students, the ones who most need assistance, this could put college completely out of reach,” said Justin Draeger, president of the NASFAA. “It represents a dis-investment in our country and the ability of our kids to provide for the future.”
“We consider the Pell Grant program a lifeline for a plethora of our students, and we depend upon Congress for its support,” said Darryl Marshall, Florida State’s director of financial aid. “Without it, a lot of academic dreams will never be realized.”
As a way to prepare for any future cuts, FSU will change the manner in which it awards Pell Grants in 2012-13 in order to help the most vulnerable students.
“We’ve always used a first-come, first-served model, but we’re working on moving completely to a need-based policy,” Marshall said. “That would be a substantial change for us.”
Vermont associate athletics director Sue Hagens said her school usually averages 40-45 athletes receiving Pell Grant aid, roughly 11% of its athletes, providing around $183,000 annually. UVM (enrollment 10,461 undergraduates), awarded 2,339 Pell grants overall last year.
“The Pell Grants don’t necessarily figure into a lot of our recruiting strategy, but they are a big part of the aid package at Vermont,” Hagens said. “In many cases they help make Vermont financially viable. Any reduction in federal assistance would be a major concern to us.”
The NASFAA has encouraged members to begin grass-roots lobbying efforts with their lawmakers and representatives to discourage Pell Grant reductions. The association also has created a Facebook page under Save Student Aid.
“It’s a coalition of voices telling real-life stories of what student aid meant to them and illustrating if cuts are made, how they will be affected,” Draeger said. “We can’t overstate how egregious we believe spending cuts in education would be.”
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