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Sen. Bill Would Cut Living Expenses from Pell Grants for Online Learning Students

In a blog entry yesterday, WCET's Russ Poulin highlighted that the FY 2013 Senate appropriations bill covering federal education spending included a troubling provision that would exclude fully online students from counting room-and-board and personal expenses from the need calculation that determines the size of the Pell Grant for which they might qualify. So, under the Senate bill, regardless of whether a complete, objective application of the financial need formula would indicate that two students should get a Pell Grant of the same size, the fully online student would actually get a smaller Pell award because a significant portion of his or her need would not be included in the calculation.

Fortunately, this provision is not yet law and it may never become law given the impact of election year politics on the likely ability of the Republican House and Democratic Senate to reach an agreement on anything other than a generic, stop-gap spending bill. However, even though the provision is specifically limited to the determination of need for Pell Grants, not federal student loans or other forms of federal student aid to which a financial need calculation might apply, it could potentially set a disturbing precedent by discounting the extent of a student's financial need based on the form of learning in which the student engages, not his or her actual need as would otherwise be calculated on a standard basis.

As Russ notes in his post, we have speculated in our conversations about the rationale behind this provision, but we don't yet have any firm information on the thinking behind it. We continue to explore different avenues for understanding how the proposed limitation got into the bill as well as its likely reception as the bill moves forward, not just in the Senate but ultimately as it reaches the House, assuming it does so with the provision intact.

One slight point of divergence in our take on the issue concerns the emergence at roughly the same time of a proposal by the U.S. Department of Education for new Pell Grant pilot programs to explore the impact of different, more flexible ways of awarding such grants, which would expand access to them, on student outcomes. As Russ writes, he sees it as just counter-intuitive, period. I tend to view it, on the other hand, as indicative of the different agendas and often not unusual lack of coordination between two parts of the government on a significant policy issue, even when those parts are controlled by the same party. But in either case, it emphasizes the degree to which the Senate provision runs counter to national goals for increasing affordable access to postsecondary education and improving student outcomes from that education.

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