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Education Funding

Pell Grants for High School Students? U.S. Dept. of Education Is Going to Try It

By Alyson Klein — October 30, 2015 3 min read
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For years, Pell Grants have helped low-income college students cover part of the cost of post-secondary education. Now, the U.S. Department of Education is moving to expand the program to high school kids who want to take dual enrollment courses that can count for college credit.

The administration is planning to create a $20 million pilot program that would allow high schoolers to use Pell Grants to pay for college courses. To put that in context, the Pell Grant program is about $67.1 billion total. So the pilot proposal is a pretty small drop in the Pell bucket. (The maximum Pell Grant for this school year is $5,775.) But if the program were expanded widely, it could be a real game changer.

When will we see details? Next week, the department will put a notice in the federal register inviting post-secondary institutions (four-year colleges, community colleges, etc.) to partner with a school district or high school and apply to be part of the program. Ultimately, the program could benefit up to 10,000 students from low-income families next school year.

Some caveats: The grants can only be used for courses that could eventually lead to a post-secondary credential (i.e. a bachelor’s or associate’s degree). Those same courses can also count towards a high school diploma, but that’s not a must. The program would give high school students the chance to earn at least 12 post-secondary credits.

And school districts and colleges that decide to participate need to do what they can to make sure these high schoolers are successful in the college courses they take. That means offering counseling and tutoring support (if necessary) and giving students a hand with the notoriously difficult-to-fill-out-application for Free for Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Participants also need to make sure students meet any grade point average requirements, and take and pass necessary placement tests, or prerequisites for any dual enrollment courses they pay for using Pell money.

Can the Pell Grant program, which has gone through some lean years, afford this? The program actually has a surplus right now, according to an analysis by Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding and go-to-guy on edu-budget-anything. The program will face a shortfall, but not until a few years from now (federal fiscal year 2019, for you budget nerds who like specifics).

Count the Council of Chief State School Officers as an official fan of the approach. “Dual credit and similar opportunities can help students better prepare for college and careers before they graduate. CCSSO, and our member states, look forward to learning from this pilot program to see how it can build on the progress states already have made in expanding access to high-quality dual credit courses,” said Carissa Miller, CCSSO’s deputy executive director, in a statement.

Will private high schools be able to participate? Not right now, says the Education Department. For now, since the program is experimental, the agency is going to stick with public schools, since they have built in oversight from local school boards and states.

And this proposal generated more reaction on Twitter than anything the department has done ... since umm, that big testing announcement:

Not everyone is thrilled, though: