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Student leaders sound the alarm as pell grants face an uncertain fate

 Frederick J. Soejanto and the other Community College of Philadelphia Student Ambassadors have taken on a project that is bigger than any single college. 

by Linda S. Wallace
Special to the Tri-State Defender

PHILADELPHIA – Frederick J. Soejanto chased after students rushing through the corridors of the West Building at Community College of Philadelphia while delivering the news that stopped more than a few of his peers in their tracks: Pell grants are in danger of being cut – if undergraduates don’t act quickly.

Soejanto and the other Community College of Philadelphia Student Ambassadors have taken on a project that is bigger than any single college. They’re mobilizing national support for the Federal Pell Grant Program, which helps more than 9 million Americans pay for college.

 Frederick Soejanto, a student ambassador at Community College of Philadelphia, discusses recent efforts to reduce Pell Grants with Shaneka Frazer, a fellow ambassador. The College’s student ambassadors conducted an awareness campaign this spring to make peers aware of ongoing efforts to reduce financial aid and grant awards. (Photo by Dennis Gingell, Office of Marketing and Government Relations, Community College of Philadelphia)

Since the start of the spring semester, the ambassadors have used word-of-mouth, buttons and glossy brochures to inform peers of the College’s ongoing campaign to help students preserve their access to Pell grants. Here, and elsewhere around the country, people are using texts, emails and book smarts to rally public support for financial aid at a time many minorities face greater restrictions on the amount they may qualify for from the federal program, as well as the number of semesters they may receive it.

From January through March, the ambassadors set up booths near computer terminals where students typically gather between classes to check email. There, they engaged peers in discussions of last year’s attempt in Washington, D.C. to address a $20 billion funding shortfall by cutting the maximum Pell grant amount. After students and colleges nationwide mobilized, a compromise was reached, but the changes, some say, eventually reduced the number of Pell recipients by an estimated 143,000 students.

The “year-round” Pell grant, which was designed to keep students in school all year and accelerate the rate of their progress, was among the causalities of that agreement. In addition, starting July 1 the maximum lifetime eligibility for Pell grant aid will be reduced from nine years (18 semesters) to six years (12 semesters).

According to the Institute for College Access & Success, African-American students are likely to be disproportionately affected by the six-year time limit. Though comprising just 24 percent of all Pell Grant recipients, they represent 41 percent of recipients working toward a degree after six years.

Nationally, the Pell Grant is the largest source of financial aid for community college students. Under the administration of President Barack Obama, the maximum Pell grant award has risen to $5,550. The recession, coupled with surging student enrollments, have made more students eligible for the program, and that doubled the Pell grant program’s costs in just two years, prompting the price tag to reach $32 billion during the 2010-11 academic year.

This year, with revenues in the federal coffers still lagging, the conversation on possible financial aid cutbacks and reductions continues, and further restrictions on eligibility and reductions have been proposed.

An urban school with a 72 percent minority enrollment, Community College of Philadelphia decided it couldn’t sit back and hope for the best. Administrators created a page where visitors can learn about Pell grant developments and write to elected officials. The initiative is championed by President Stephen M. Curtis and Lynette Brown-Sow, vice president for Marketing and Government Relations. Both have been working with the American Association of Community Colleges and the Association of American College Trustees on the Pell Action Center campaign (http://bit.ly/qR4U5X).

Hits on Community College of Philadelphia’s “Save Pell” (http://www.ccp.edu/site/savepell) webpage spiked during the first few months of this year, and Kris Henk, the College’s Director of Marketing, gives the hardworking and determined student ambassadors much of the credit.

This year, there have been 4,139 page views on the “Save Pell” section of the College’s website, with a high of 1,066 page views coming the week of Feb. 12. Students and other visitors to the Save Pell web page identify their elected officials and then email them messages in support of preserving Pell grants and halting new policy restrictions. A total of 2,134 advocacy alert emails were sent to elected officials in 2011, said Henk. So far this year, 1,840 advocacy alerts already have been dispatched. Additionally, a total of 1,727 Save Pell “activists” have registered at the site.

Ashlyn Dych, a new mother, is among the students at Community College of Philadelphia who is concerned by efforts to reduce financial aid. A single mom, she says her studies at the College took on even greater significance after she lost her job.

Dych gave birth recently, but was back in class six weeks after her son, Andrew, was born. She is confident her strong commitment to college will enrich her son’s life and lift up the city.

“I think education is the best thing you can do for yourself and your community,” said Dych, who, like tens of millions of others, relies upon financial aid. “I wouldn’t be able to go to school without it.”

(Source: Office of Marketing and Government Relations, Community College of Philadelphia)


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