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.
COLLEGES MUST FIGHT BACK
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.