Community colleges across the country have seen a steep decline in enrollments this year for a few reasons. A recovering economy steering students toward jobs and budget cuts that have led to fee increases have played key roles but changes to federal Pell grant eligibility are most notable. According to a new study, community colleges in the Deep South have been hit hardest by the changes that took effect last year.
The study, by Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama director Stephen Katsinas, argues that community college enrollments in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi are highly sensitive to changes in the federal grant program. Enrollment in 47 of the 62 two-year colleges across the three states declined this past fall and more than 5,000 students lost Pell grants – a change that the report's authors say can be directly attributed to the changes in eligibility. Students are now limited to just six years of Pell grants, fewer students automatically qualify for the maximum grant because of a lower income cap for receiving an “automatic zero” expected family contribution and students without a high school diploma or GED are no longer eligible.
While many states have started to see their economies improve, that’s not the case for the three states included in the study. In fact, not only have their economies not recovered but state-supported student aid programs are much smaller, so colleges have fewer resources for low-income students who no longer qualify for Pell grants. Both Pell grants and community colleges are "vital to enhancing college degree completion in the Deep South, for it is the community colleges where economically disadvantaged students begin higher education," the study noted. The enrollment numbers were based on surveys of community college officials. All of the two-year colleges in the three-state region responded. However, the national enrollment data for 2012 hasn't been compiled yet, said David Thomas, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education.