Boost for Pell Education Grants Seen as Likely

Doug Hendriksen was already braced for bad news when he visited the University of Utah’s financial aid office on Tuesday. His family’s financial picture disqualifies the 22-year-old freshman from a federal Pell grant this year, but he is eligible for a federally backed Stafford loan — though the money won’t arrive for another three to five weeks.

"A grant would have helped," says Hendriksen, who is leery of borrowing, which he says "puts life on hold. It’s hard to take the next step forward when you have to deal with things like debt."

A computer engineering major and trumpeter in the U. marching band, Hendriksen is among the thousands of Utah college students flocking to financial aid offices in record numbers this fall. Demand for aid at the U. and Utah State University is up at least 25 percent.

Driving this trend is widespread hardship stemming from the economic downturn, which also is fueling a dramatic uptick in enrollment, observers say. Meanwhile, job postings are disappearing, down about half at USU’s Logan campus.

"It’s a harder environment for students to find part-time employment. A lot of families have lost a job so more students are eligible for aid," says Steve Sharp, USU’s financial aid director.

Another factor is rising tuition, which climbed another 9 percent to $5,700 at the U., still considered a "low-tuition" university.

"I wonder if we’ve reached a tipping point with tuition," says John Curl, the U.’s financial aid director.

At Salt Lake Community College, aid applications climbed to 25,000 this fall, representing more than two-thirds of its credit-seeking student body.

Not only are more students seeking aid, but more are qualifying for federal grants and the size of those grants has increased thanks to generous changes the Obama administration has made to the Pell program. For example, SLCC meted out nearly $10 million in Pell grants so far this fall, versus about $6 million over the entire fall semester last year, according to college spokesman Joy Tlou.

"It excites me for the simple fact that I won’t have to pay it back," says Pell recipient Lori Sisneros, a married mother of two who was laid off from her retail job in June. Already saddled with $14,000 in debt for training she received at a for-profit career college, she says the Pell award will mean the difference between attending college or not.

It will cover her $2,800 tuition while she pursues general education work toward an associate of applied science degree. The 31-year-old Taylorsville woman’s goal is to work in physical therapy.

"It makes more sense to me so that I’m not going further into debt," she says. "Between the grants and other the financial offerings I can get a good education behind me so I can get into a career that is economy-proof. I’m taking a Stafford loan because I need to pay rent."

Claiborne Pell is the Rhode Island senator who sponsored the 1972 legislation that created Basic Educational Opportunity Grants, later renamed in his honor.

"The Pell Grant clearly has become the most far-reaching workforce development program Congress has enacted, because it is the door to the American Dream and marketable job skills for legions of less-affluent students and workers pursuing better employment and life-long learning," wrote Frank Mensel, a senior fellow at the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center, in a commentary on Pell’s passing last January.

According to Mensel, a retired lobbyist who happens to be a U. alumnus, Utah uses the Pell program better than almost any other state. In 2007-08, students at the state’s public schools reaped $79.5 million in 33,305 Pell awards, according to state data, and this year’s take is certain to dwarf that figure. Meanwhile, Utah’s state system of need-based aid hands out relatively meager awards, totalling $5 million last year.

But this kind of direct aid is out of reach for many U. freshman like Hendriksen and Hannah Bowcutt of Massachusetts, who was at the financial aid office Wednesday sorting out her loan.

"It’s a new experience of being an adult. I love it," said Bowcutt, 18. "It’s a long process. One little mistake and it takes an extra three weeks to get your loan. I had to borrow my grandmother’s credit card to pay my out-of-state tuition."

Hendriksen lives at home in Salt Lake City and takes the bus to school to scrimp. His parents are not providing financial support other than shelter.

"That’s all they can do. They’re struggling too," Hendriksen says.


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