Mitch Minerd is one of 10 children whose father died when he was 10. His family couldn’t write out any checks to help him go to college.
So Uncle Sam stepped in with a grant to help the 22-year- old study exercise science at the University of Akron.
Last year, he was among a record 8.9 million students at private, tax-supported and proprietary schools nationwide who received $36.5 billion in Pell Grants, double the amount of just three years ago.
The recession, higher tuition costs, more liberal Pell Grant eligibility standards and an increasing number of high school graduates and more adults returning to school have created the perfect storm — a seemingly endless stream of requests for the federal bedrock of student financial aid.
The Obama administration asked for $41.2 billion in Pell funding for the current academic year, but it is unclear how much of that aims to pay down last year’s shortfall as demand exceeded what was budgeted, said spokesman Haley Chitty of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
“The program operates like an entitlement,” he said. “If you’re eligible, you’re going to get a Pell Grant.”
Last year, almost 120,000 students — 69 percent more than just five years ago — qualified for the federal Pell Grant at Ohio’s 13 tax-supported universities. The grants do not have to be paid back by the students.
Awards are based on how much the student’s family can pay, but generally students qualify for the full Pell award of $5,550 if their family income is under $30,000.
At UA, four of 10 students received a typical award of $3,600. At Kent State, almost half of students qualified for an average grant of more than $3,900. KSU also led the state in the number of Pell recipients last year — 18,700 — and in the total amount awarded —$73.5 million.
“I know that a lot of students would not be able to pursue higher education if it weren’t for the Pell Grant,” said Mark Evans, KSU director of financial aid.
Still, the maximum Pell award of $5,550 only covers about half of the cost of tuition at a tax-supported university like Kent State. The actual cost — especially for those who don’t live at home — was more than $24,000 last year, Evans pointed out.
That means low- or moderate income students must reach out to other kinds of funding to pay their way — everything from jobs, including campus work-study positions; to scholarships and loans, sometimes to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.
KSU nursing student Lenatee Allen estimates she will owe about $50,000 by the time she graduates in December 2012.
While she gets a $750 Pell Grant each semester, she worked as many as three part-time jobs this summer, two at Kent State and one as a scribe in the emergency room at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Youngstown, to make ends meet.
“I try to be optimistic about everything. You’ve got to roll with the punches,” she said.
Israel Pugliesi put a job as a truck driver behind him when he enrolled at UA to study computer information systems.
He qualified for a $4,000 yearly award, but also will borrow $35,000 to $40,000 to make it through college.
“The Pell does throw you a life preserver,” said Pugliesi, 38. “It would be a lot harder to make it if I didn’t have it.”
He has taken out loans, works part time on campus and eventually hopes to find a job with an employer that offers tuition benefits.
He juggles work and school with caring for his 5-year-old son, for whom he is the custodial parent.
“I figured truck driving wasn’t going to bring me the level of income that I wanted for my son,” he said. “I’d always loved computers and was the go-to guy for all my friends, so I thought I’d further extend this.”
Future cuts possible
While Pugliesi inches through school, a bipartisan panel could make cuts in this and other college financial aid programs as they seek to trim $1.2 trillion from the federal budget by Thanksgiving.
They already have eliminated the third semester of Pell Grant eligibility, reining in the maximum that students can collect to two semesters starting next summer.
That will be a cut to students who have been trying to get through school more quickly by taking classes every semester, said Michelle Ellis, UA’s director of student financial aid.
That will further affect the growing number of students who are filing “special apps” — requests to recalculate their financial aid because a parent lost a job or their own hours at a job were reduced.
“One of the biggest changes we’ve seen is that more and more students honestly don’t have all their tuition and fees covered,” Ellis said.
While Congress preserved the Pell Grant at last year’s level, it did so by hacking away at other financial aid programs.
It halted unsubsidized loans to graduate and professional students, which means they must begin to repay what they borrow while they are still in college, and eliminated incentives that lower the interest rate for on-time, automatic borrowers.
The Pell, the foundation of financial aid, remains a target in the next couple of years, said Chitty of the national financial aid association.
Grants represent the largest chunk of the federal aid trilogy of loans, grants and work study, and the Pell is the largest of those.
The Pell has helped students like Minerd, the UA student from the large family, to afford something that was otherwise out of his reach.
While he qualifies for the maximum award of $5,550, he estimates he still will owe $40,000 by the time he graduates.
“It’s a hard life, but it’s made me stronger,” he said.
Carol Biliczky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3729.