TAMPA — With the cost of a college education steadily rising, students and the parents who bankroll them might find some solace in knowing the most popular pot of money for need-based financial aid has been climbing even faster.
Pell grants, the federal program that provides cash awards to low-income undergraduates, are being handed out at increasing levels at Hillsborough Community College, the University of South Florida, the state university system as a whole, and nationally.
Several factors are contributing, including President Barack Obama’s recommitment to the program, the slow economy and dwindling family incomes.
“I always describe what we’ve seen with Pell in the last five or six years to be a perfect storm,” said Megan McClean, a policy analyst for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators in Washington, D.C. “It really wasn’t just one thing.”
Overall, it’s meant more money for people like Latrice Blocker, a USF student who says her Pell awards are sparing her from a common fate among her peers – crippling student loan debt.
“It definitely helps,” said Blocker, a sophomore in microbiology. “Even if it’s not that much, it really releases you from that burden of having to take out loans.”
The grant program began in 1972 and was eventually named for Rhode Island Sen. Claiborne Pell, a Democrat and early champion. Students seeking awards complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
A formula then determines how much an individual student’s family is able to contribute, and grants are doled out accordingly. Students were eligible for a maximum award of about $5,800 this school year, with the average grant about $3,700.
“To me, it’s a short-term investment for a long-term gain,” said Billie Jo Hamilton, director of university scholarships and financial aid services at USF. “It’s a good thing that low-income kids get a college education. It helps them and it helps their families, as well.”
The College Board estimated that the cost of attending a four-year public school rose 2.9 percent last year — the smallest increase in more than 30 years. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott froze tuition at public universities, but tuition is only one component of the final bill for attending a university.
Forty-one percent of USF undergrads receive a Pell grant, behind only Florida International University’s 47 percent in the state university system. Hamilton said that’s because USF traditionally has had a lot of first-generation and low-income students.
That’s 14,823 students overall at USF receiving Pell grants in fall 2012, nearly double the 7,813 that earned one in fall 2004.
Systemwide, 100,568 students at Florida’s 11 public universities received grants, also nearly doubling the 50,705 eight years earlier.
At Hillsborough Community College, 30,350 students received Pell grants worth $55 million in the 2011-12 school year, the most recent year for which data was available. That was up from 24,769 recipients and $43 million in 2009-10.
Tierra Smith, HCC’s director of financial aid, said the increase mirrors enrollment gains at the college. State colleges typically see an enrollment bounce when the economy sours, she said, and the 2008 recession sent droves of students into academia to receive career training.
“A lot of students wouldn’t be able to attend if they didn’t have the Pell grant, or they would accumulate debt,” Smith said. “I do believe in the Pell grant program. I think it is necessary.”
It is necessary for Blocker, the daughter of a disabled veteran and stay-at-home mom. She has five sisters and a brother; two have already graduated from college, and her twin sister also attends USF.
“We’re all getting our education. We knew the importance of it,” she said.
Blocker works at the main campus library and also has a Bright Futures scholarship.
“I’m in my second year, and I don’t think I have to be concerned about leaving college thousands and thousands of dollars in debt, because my tuition is pretty much covered,” she said.
Increasing Pell awards was a priority of Obama in his first term, and spending on the program has increased from $16 billion in his first year of office to $32 billion today. The program has been largely insulated from anti-tax, anti-big-government sentiment, however, because Congress made changes to federal student loans that reduced the cost of those programs.
In addition, McClean, the Washington consultant, said Pell is a “well-targeted program,” with the majority of awards going to families earning less than $30,000, and criteria in place to ensure students are attending class, maintaining good grades, and on track to graduate.
“It’s a great program,” she said. “It really is considered the cornerstone program of federal student aid. It’s the one focused on access and need, and it really has changed a lot of lives over its history.”