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Don’t let con artists cheapen valuable intent of Pell Grants

Published: Mon, February 24, 2014 @ 12:00 a.m.

Forty-nine years ago, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed legislation to provide millions of dollars in grant money to low-income college students as part of his Great Society and War on Poverty legacies.

Forty-nine years later, the college-grant program named after former education advocate Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island endures as a vital tool for millions of Americans to secure higher education en route to fulfilling the American Dream.

Pell Grant success stories are legion, as more than 1 in 4 students receives them, each worth up to $5,550 a year. But as with many state and federal programs with noble intent, abuse and fraud have creeped into the Pell Grant bureaucracy, making colleges, deserving students and American taxpayers all unwitting victims.

From 2009 to 2012, the number of students enrolled at schools solely to obtain federal financial aid — sometimes called “Pell Runners” — grew 82‚âpercent, to 34,000 suspected cases, according to federal estimates. The watchdog branch of the U.S. Education Department identified $870 million in the annual $35 billion Pell Grant pot that might have been taken fraudulently between those years.

According to a Columbus Dispatch report last week, community colleges and online programs have been the primary targets of such scammers. The Pell Grants sought under the scheme must cover tuition costs before schools turn the rest of the money directly over to students. Therefore, low-price tuitions at institutions such as Eastern Gateway Community College translate to heftier ill-begotten paychecks.

Simple math easily explains the greater attraction to community colleges among Pell Runners. Per credit tuition at Youngstown State University, for example, is $258 per semester hour this year. Students at EGCC, however pay less than half that charge — $114 per semester credit hour. That’s a significant extra chunk of change available for con artists to swindle.


That’s why it is incumbent upon community colleges, technical schools, and all institutions of higher learning to fight back. Several tools adopted by many colleges and universities have shown signs of effectiveness in identifying and prosecuting the unsavory hustlers.

Among those strategies include more complex and thorough financial-aid application procedures. Such policies help to separate the students seriously willing to invest time and effort in higher education from those who simply are out for a quick buck. At EGCC and many other community colleges, required daily in-class attendance is taken seriously by instructors and administrators. Those who fail to prove regular attendance within the first few weeks of a semester will suffer the consequences, up to and including withholding of their Pell checks.

Some community colleges have gone as far as raising tuition to cover the monetary losses that the institutions must pay back to the federal government. At Columbus State Community College, for example, almost $5 million in fiscal year 2012, up from $3.4‚âmillion in 2011, had to be repaid to Uncle Sam to cover such losses.

Tuition increases should, however, be a last resort. It is unfair to the many students who have chosen community-college education to turn their lives around partially because of its affordable cost. Minimizing access opportunities would hurt the very target audience of first-in-the-family college enrollees that community colleges tend to attract.

We’re hopeful that close monitoring of students by community colleges and strict punishment for wrongdoers by state and federal authorities will make a sizable dent in the scope of this shameful grant thievery. In so doing, the honorable intent of the program to broaden educational opportunities and to continue the five-decade-long construction of LBJ’s Great Society will be well served.


1kurtw(1822 comments)posted 2 years, 5 months ago

I don't get the three repeats of the same statement. Just because there are abuses of the program doesn't invalidate the program itself- I think money spent to help lower income people to get a higher education is money well spent- certainly makes a hell of a lot more sense than a lot of other Government Programs I know of- such as one's that encourage single women to bear children- now That's a Disaster...

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2lajoci(676 comments)posted 2 years, 4 months ago

The Pell Grant program is a "give-away," without a doubt. We give it away, yes, and we give it to ourselves.

How is this possible? How, by giving it away, do we give it to ourselves? Seems contradictory, or, at least, counter-intuitive, or a paradox, or maybe an oxymoron. Am I engaging in language games here? Is this simply more liberal looney-ism?

No. Far from it, on all counts.

By supporting young people as they strive for higher education, through Pell grants and Perkins loans and Stafford loans and, in this state, Ohio Instructional Grants, and all the myriad loans and grants and scholarship programs that exist to aid students, we put our money where our mouth is regarding the whole point of liberal democracy -- that by removing barriers and opening the doors to achievement and advancement we present opportunity to the widest possible base of the population, many of whom may be prevented, sometimes by no more than accident of birth, from achieving and being all they can be and achieve.

That is the hope of liberal democracy -- everyone gets a chance to realize their fullest potential. And society, as a whole, benefits from that in countless ways from the countless contributions that these people make, especially from those whose humble beginnings may have excluded them from fully participating.

Sure, it's a gamble. When I support these programs I'm gambling, with my tax dollars, that some kid out there among the millions of anonymous kids, will get an education, and then come up with the next breakthrough that will, in turn, benefit me and mine. Happens all the time. Needs to happen more.

By giving, we get, a fact proven time and time again.

So try to overcome your cynicism about "government handouts" -- the potential returns far exceed the costs.

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3kurtw(1822 comments)posted 2 years, 4 months ago

Eivo, I don't consider myself a "left-wing" extremist- far from it. On most issues I'm a solid "conservative" and here's one: helping lower income kids go to college is not a "waste" of tax payers money it's actually rooted in conservatism. We "conserve" that which is most valuable in our heritage and educating our children is the most valuable of all- if just 10 percent of the kids who get this kind of aid (kid's who otherwise might become dropouts or street loiterer's) go on to achieve and contribute to society- then it's money well spent.

Now ask me how I feel about encouraging single women to have children- which many of our welfare programs do- and it's another matter- not all money spent to "help the poor" is well spent- as long as we know to distinguish good from bad we're OK.

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4kurtw(1822 comments)posted 2 years, 4 months ago

There's a huge, huge amount of "Waste" in our government- and the problem is a lot of taxpayers are so upset about that- as they should be- that they adopt a "blanket attitude" to every Government Program- that's a mistake. We have to learn to evaluate every program on it's merits- or lack thereof- and helping kid's to acquire an education is definitely money well spent.

Thomas Jefferson said: "The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance" and I think that about says it. Problem is, who among the citizenry can afford to be "eternally vigilant"- most of us have jobs to hold, family to raise, etc. The "vigilant ones" are the professionals- full time Politicians- and they're exactly the ones we should be keeping an eye on.

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