WASHINGTON — Thousands of low-income students will be eligible for federal Pell Grant money to take college courses while still in high school.
The opportunity is part of an experimental program announced Friday by the Obama administration. The Education Department said the administration will invest up to $20 million in the 2016-17 school year — helping up to 10,000 students.
High school students who take college courses through “dual enrollment” programs will be eligible. Those programs allow high school kids to take classes at a local college, often earning college credit.
“A postsecondary education is one of the most important investments students can make in their future. Yet the cost of this investment is higher than ever, creating a barrier to access for some students, particularly those from low-income families,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement.
Pell Grants are for low-income students and do not have to be repaid.
In Utah, 36 percent of juniors and seniors — more than 27,000 students — participated in concurrent enrollment last year. Most of them took English 1010 and Math 1050, two general education courses common to almost all college students in the state, according to Spencer Jenkins, spokesman for the Utah System of Higher Education.
Utah’s concurrent enrollment program has been around for the better part of three decades and is now one of the largest in the country in terms of the percentage of students who participate.
And for good reason.
Thanks to state appropriations, students in concurrent enrollment pay only $5 per credit — a major source of savings considering tuition ranges from $123 per credit at Salt Lake Community College to $760 per credit at the University of Utah. Most students save between $1,300 and $13,500 through concurrent enrollment.
“For a student to be able to take care of those in high school really gets them that much further down the path of completing college. It’s a great incentive, and it’s one we like to see because it gets them focused on college success in high school,” Jenkins said.
But it begs the question of how much Pell assistance is needed by Utah high schoolers.
While $5 per credit is not prohibitive for most students, almost 20 percent of them are on free or reduced-price lunch, Jenkins said.
“That’s where Pell really could play a role in helping those students,” he said. “It could be that there are students really that are in need, even at that level.”
It’s still unclear how the program will roll out or whether Utah will be selected to participate in the initial pilot. Jenkins said that even though concurrent enrollment operates at such a low cost to Utah students, Pell assistance would still benefit many of them.
“We’re hoping that we’ll be one that they’ll be interested in looking at,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Education has the authority to create the 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, so-called “experimental site” programs last for three years. But the department is hoping that this will last for at least four years, to cover students all through high school.
The government awarded $28.7 billion in Pell Grants to almost 8.3 million students in the 2015 fiscal year. The average Pell Grant was about $3,600. The maximum Pell award for the current 2015-2016 school year is $5,775.
Since 2008, the Obama administration has increased Pell funding by 70 percent. In July, the administration announced a new experimental program, called the “Second Chance Pell Pilot” program, which extends Pell money to some federal and state prisoners taking college courses while still behind bars. Mostly prisoners who are eligible for release in the next five years will be eligible to apply.