White House bets on college course grants for low-income high-schoolers

The Education Department will invest about $20 million to help low-income high-schoolers apply for federal grants to take college classes, helping them access challenging coursework. 

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/ AP/ File
President Barack Obama, center, talks with students at Coral Reef High School in Miami in 2014, as he unveiled an initiative to ensure more students complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a document required for most types of school financial aid such as Pell grants. On Monday, the Education Department announced a new program to let high school students apply for federal aid for college courses.

For the first time, thousands of low-income high-school students in nearly two dozen states will soon be able to get federal grants to take college courses for credit, part of a program the Obama administration plans to begin this summer. 

The experimental program allows high school students to apply for federal Pell grant money to pay for college courses. The "dual enrollment" program is designed to help students from lower-income backgrounds.

The Education Department says the administration will invest about $20 million in the 2016-17 school year to help about 10,000 students.

On Monday, the administration announced 44 colleges that are expected to participate.

Education Secretary John B. King Jr. says too many students in need aren't getting challenging coursework to help prepare and motivate them beyond high school.

"The courses students take while in high school and the support they get to succeed in those courses are major factors in not only whether students go to college but also in how well they will do when they get there," King said in a call with reporters. "The more rigorous and engaging the classes are, the better."

The schools had applied for the program after it was announced last October, and can start offering Pell grants to eligible students as early as July. Pell grants are for low-income people and do not have to be repaid.

Most of the institutions selected for the dual enrollment program are community colleges.

Among the schools expected to take part: Germanna Community College in Fredericksburg, Virginia; Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown, North Carolina; Hagerstown Community College in Hagerstown, Maryland; Holyoke Community College in Holyoke, Massachusetts; Illinois Central College in East Peoria, Illinois; and Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis, Tennessee.

In the 2010-11 school year, more than 1.4 million high school students took courses offered by a college or university for credit through dual enrollment programs. By offering grant money to kids from lower-income families, the administration is aiming to use the experimental program to help better prepare students in need for college.

According to the department, less than 10 percent of children born in the bottom fourth of household incomes earn a bachelor's degree by age 25, compared to over 50 percent in the top fourth.

Less than 10 percent of four-year colleges have at least 40 percent of their students receiving Pell grants and also have the majority of them graduate within six years, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in March. Those universities' "success stories are the exceptions, but they ought to be the rule," Secretary King said at the time. 

Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell said participating high school students would begin using their Pell eligibility while participating in the dual-enrollment program. The goal, he said, is that this program would lead directly to careers or a transfer into a four-year degree program for students.

"Rather than burning Pell dollars, these Pell dollars will accelerate students' trajectory toward completing a degree on time, or early, at cost, or lower cost," Mitchell told reporters after the selected colleges were announced.

Pell amounts change each year. For the 2016-17 award year that begins in July, the maximum award is $5,815. The amount a student receives varies, depending on financial need, cost of attendance, status as a full-time or part-time student, and other factors.

Students can receive Pell grants for no more than 12 semesters or roughly six years of college.

The department has the authority to create the dual enrollment-Pell pilot program under the experimental sites section of the Higher Education Act of 1965. It gives federal officials flexibility to test the effectiveness of temporary changes to the way federal student aid is distributed.

Usually, "experimental site" programs last for three years. The department is hoping that this one will last for at least four years, to cover students all through high school.

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