Putting Education Reform To The Test

Why It’s Harder for College Students to Get Financial Aid This Summer

Sarah Gonzalez / StateImpact Florida

Florida International University senior Courtney Johnson works 20 hours a week as a secretary on campus. This summer she's taken out $2,700 in loans to pay for summer tuition. She only took out $600 in loans for the full 2011-2012 fall and spring semesters.

College students  who need to go to summer school have few choices for grants and scholarships.

And their options just shrank.

The federal government is no longer giving out a need-based Pell Grant to help students pay for summer tuition.

And the replacement is more loans.

Senior Courtney Johnson has taken summer courses at Florida International University for the past two years.

She received the federal summer Pell Grant each time.

It’s covered most of her summer tuition.

But this summer she’s taking out $2,700 in student loans. That just happens to be about the amount of a full summer Pell Grant.

“And then I still have to buy my own textbooks and I still had to pay $350 out of my own pocket because they didn’t offer enough loans,” she said.

A lot of students max out their student loan options during the fall and spring semesters.

So a few years ago, the federal government started offering a $2,750 Pell Grant for the summer semester in addition to the same amount in the fall and the spring.

In 2009, Florida colleges and universities handed out nearly twice as much in Pell Grants the first year of the summer program.

At the University of Florida awards increased from $26 million to $46 million that year.

“The classes are shorter so you’re paying more money for a shorter period of time.”

-Courtney Johnson, senior at FIU

At the University of North Florida, Pell Grant distributions increased from $8 million to $16 million.

Much of the increase came from students taking summer classes and getting the financial aid for it.

“We did see a bump in summer enrollment,” said Rene Garcia, enrollment director at Miami-Dade College.

But now that the summer grant is gone, Gracia says fewer students are likely to take summer courses.

“I am anticipating that there will be an impact on summer enrollment,” Garcia said. ”It’s still a little early to get a good sense, but I can see a pattern that we are returning to our pre-summer Pell numbers.”

Summer school is usually divided into two terms at many Florida colleges and universities. Most won’t have their final summer enrollment numbers until after the start of the second summer term.

But student Courtney Johnson says her campus looks emptier than usual for summer school.

“This semester there’s barely any people on campus,” she said. “It’s weird because [the first summer term] is usually really fuller because everyone wants to get school over by June.”

Why Was the Summer Pell Grant Cut?

Fewer students means less state funding for colleges and less tuition money coming in.

But Garcia says cutting summer financial aid will also delay graduations.

Sarah Gonzalez / StateImpact Florida

Rene Garcia is Director of Enrollment at Miami-Dade College. He's anticipating summer enrollment will be down this year since the federal government has cut financial aid for summer tuition.

“Lately there has been so much emphasis on accelerating the process of earning a degree and making it easier for students to accelerate and complete their credentials,” Garcia said. “This obviously runs counter to that.”

Eliminating the summer Pell Grant has allowed the federal government to keep the fall and spring Pell Grant at current levels, says Anissa Agne, financial aid director at the University of North Florida.

She says some Florida schools do have summer grants of their own to offer students. At UNF there is a need-based summer grant for up to $1200.

“We’ve tried to utilize our institutional grants for our students to be able to take summer school and be able to pay for some of those summer classes,” Agne said. “Because we realize many of the returning students will not have Pell Grant available.”

But that still won’t make up for the millions of dollars students are losing out on in summer assistance.

Changes to the Fall and Spring Pell Grant

Although the fall and spring Pell Grant will remain at a maximum of $5,500 for the 2012-2013 school year, fewer students will receive the award from now on.

That’s because the federal government has lowered the amount of income a family can make in order to qualify.

When Agne started working in financial aid, the most a family could earn was $18,000 in order to qualify for the Pell Grant.

“And it has gone up each year to allow families to make more money and still receive a full Pell Grant, which made more students eligible,” Agne said.

This school year, a family of four could make up to $32,000 for a student to receive the maximum award.

Next school year, that same family of four can only make $23,000.

“It’s the first time we see a drop in the 17 years I have been in financial aid,” Agne said.

The Summer Semester Hurts Student Pockets More

The summer Pell Grant was only in effect for two years.

The Obama administration decided not to continue funding the program because it was costing more than they planned on. 

More students were signing up for summer aid than officials had anticipated.

And Courtney Johnson may know why.

Sarah Gonzalez / StateImpact Florida

Students at FIU say the campus feels emptier than usual for summer school. Senior Courtney Johnson think having no summer Pell Grant may discourage students from enrolling.

She says if there is any semester students would want financial aid, it’s the summer semester.

Summer tuition costs the same as fall and spring tuition, but Johnson says taking summer courses is more of a waste of money.

“The classes are shorter so you’re paying more money for a shorter period of time,” she said. “You’re getting less out of your money.”

The fall and spring semesters are about 5 months long. The summer semester is about 6 weeks.

The classes do tend to be longer periods, “but it’s rushed,” Johnson says.

“You have to get a lot of stuff done in a little period of time so I feel like I’m not really learning.”


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