Bustos wants to restore Pell grant flexibility

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U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos on Thursday introduced legislation that would return flexibility to college students who rely on Pell grants for tuition assistance.

Bustos, the 17th District Democrat from East Moline, said the bill, which she titled the "Access to Education and Training Act," will allow those students access to Pell grant assistance year-round instead of just during fall and spring semesters.

The inability to take advantage of the grants to take courses during the summer, which for some students puts an undue burden on their chance to complete schooling while working, was one of the chief problems Bustos uncovered when she toured all the community colleges in her district about a month ago.

"I found it very significant that I heard over and over again that the Pell grant program doesn't give recipients enough flexibility," Bustos said during news teleconference announcing the legislation.

That flexibility once existed but was removed in legislation adopted in 2010 as part of a larger cost-cutting measure approved by Congress. Bustos said she believes reducing that flexibility was in effect reducing opportunity for some students and was short-sighted considering the need and push for job creation throughout the country.

"This is very important because many students now are non-traditional students who are enrolled in training courses that go year-round. These students want to get in, get it done and get to work. But they can't as quickly if they must take the summer off because they cannot afford to take the courses without the Pell grants," she said.

The issue is a common one for community colleges across the country, Bustos added. She cited U.S. Department of Labor statistics that there are 3.5 million jobs unfilled nationwide and that 1.5 million of those require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor's degree.

Dr. Thomas Baynum, president of Black Hawk College in Moline, joined Bustos in making the announcement and said Pell grants enable millions of people to attend college that otherwise could not afford it. Using them in the summer would allow many to focus on studies instead of having to worry about work.

"This is directly linked to workforce development. When we as a nation are trying to invest in education, we have to ask if we are doing enough," Baynum said.

Bustos said her bill would enable students to receive Pell grants, which are capped at $5,500 per semester, during summer courses. It does not, however, increase the lifetime cap for Pell grants, which is 12 semesters.

Bustos and bill co-sponsor U.S. Rep. Davd Loesback, D-Davenport, introduced the bill in the U.S. House on Thursday. Loesback authored legislation in 2008 that created year-round Pell grants, only to see it rolled back in the 2010 cost-cutting measure.

"I know first-hand the difference education makes in students' lives and ability to secure good jobs. That's why I'm continuing to fight to make higher education more affordable for Iowans," said Loesback, a college professor. "The Pell grant availability that I created as a part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act in 2008 allowed students to progress towards their degrees at a faster pace with less debt. I have heard from countless students who's ability to afford college would be significantly improved by the availability of year-round Pell grants. It was incredibly disappointing that it was eliminated in 2011 due to budget pressure, but I look forward to working with Congresswoman Bustos to push for reinstatement as work begins on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act."

Bustos gave a one-minute speech on the House floor after introducing the Access to Education and Training Act. It can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UqIS2ODQ04Y&feature=youtu.be

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).