Expanded Pell proposals and the challenges of financial incentives


Expanded Pell proposals and the challenges of financial incentives

Good news and bad news

Last week, the Obama administration proposed two new programs to extend an additional $2 billion in Pell Grant funding to college students through the Pell for Accelerated Completion and On-Track Pell Bonus programs. If the proposals make it through the necessary political challenges, millions of low-income students will have additional options and bonus funding to accelerate their time to degree—but millions more low-income community college students will continue to be blocked from funding they badly need just to stay on track for on-time graduation.

Pell for Accelerated Completion would allow full-time students to earn a third grant award in an academic year for summer enrollment. The On-Track Pell Bonus program grants students who enroll in 15 credits per semester an additional $300 on their maximum grant amount. However, more needs to be done for students whose lives don’t allow for full-time enrollment, but who need the financial support to afford 30-credit annual enrollment to complete an associate’s degree in two years.

Make summer a chance to catch up, not fall behind

According to the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), 74% of community college students work at least part-time and 33% care for family dependents while in school. For these students, competing responsibilities prevent them from full-time enrollment and on-time graduation. As a result, most two-year college students are enrolled part-time and have much lower odds of success than their full-time peers.

Rather than only using summer Pell funding as a “bonus” for students to accelerate their college completion, community college students would be better served by Pell funding for summer enrollment to maintain 30 credits annually and graduate on time. Summer could be a chance to catch-up rather than an acceleration period that further widens the gap between those students who can afford to enroll full time and those who cannot.

Learn how Indiana State University designed a full-time summer scholarship incentive

Pair incentive schemes with social services assistance

That said, encouraging more students to enroll in college full time is a worthy effort; it just needs to be approached in the right way. Social science research has shown that monetary incentives only motivate action in the short term, but have no effect on underlying attitudes or longer-term behaviors. I’ll sign up for a gym membership if you waive the first month’s fee, but I won’t reap the benefits without making time in my schedule to work out and eat healthier.

Tools from LaGuardia Community College

Incentive schemes like “15 to Finish” or President Obama’s expanded Pell proposals will not work without complementary support that helps busy students balance their school and life responsibilities. Even students who receive financial aid have unmet needs that stand in the way of full-time enrollment and their long-term success at college, such as child care, food assistance, or housing. Helping students meet these basic needs is the first step towards full-time enrollment and on-time (or accelerated) graduation. Colleges can connect students to available resources through proactive referrals to public benefits and community assistance programs.

Nudging, not shoving, students to full-time enrollment

In our political reality of limited resources and growing frustration over unimpressive completion rates, it’s often the case that decision-makers go after ”low-hanging fruit,” or those strategies easiest and cheapest to implement that serve populations with the fewest support needs. Data tells us that there are fewer and fewer students on our community college campuses who can be classified as low-hanging fruit (blame falling enrollments and increased competition across higher education); that means that to move the dial on college completion, we need to increase investment and innovation to serve our students’ sometimes complex needs and nudge (not shove) them closer to reaching their goals.

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