Natasha Ervin is oh-so-close to getting her bachelor’s degree in social work.
But changes in financial aid mean she no longer qualifies for the free Pell grant. Without it, she doesn’t have a way to pay for her final semester this fall at the University of Akron.
“I’m surprised and heartbroken,” she said. “This roadblock is hitting me right at the end of my education.”
Ervin, 31, is among thousands of students nationwide for whom changes in federal financial aid bode disaster. The revised rules that rolled out in July tighten eligibility in many ways.
For instance, students now must have high school diplomas or the equivalent to get aid. Recipients of new subsidized — or discounted — Stafford loans must pay interest during the six-month “grace period” after they leave school. And graduate and professional students are no longer eligible for subsidized Stafford loans.
But it might be the change to the Pell grant that has the most immediate impact, especially on students close to graduation.
Perhaps more than 100,000 students across the country were left without funding when the federal government reduced the eligibility for Pell grants from 18 to 12 semesters, according to the nonprofit Project on Student Debt.
While the maximum amount of the need-based grant — $5,550 — didn’t change, the lifetime limit affects all students, even those just a semester away from graduating.
Black students affected
The change hits African-American students especially hard, as they often take more than the new lifetime limit of six years to graduate, the Project on Student Debt said. While African-Americans made up 24 percent of those receiving Pell grants in 2007-08, they made up more than 41 percent of those who received it for more than six years.
Also, 40 percent of all Pell recipients must take developmental — or remedial — courses to ramp up to college-level work, according to the student debt project. These courses don’t count toward the students’ degrees, yet eat up some of their Pell grant eligibility.
At Kent State, 246 students have exhausted their Pell eligibility and another 532 will get a reduced amount because they’re close to their limit, said Anissa Strickland, associate director of student financial aid.
“When they lose their Pell grant, they don’t have other resources to fall back on,” she said. “Some students told us they won’t be able to return.”
At Ohio State, 117 students no longer are eligible for Pell grants and another 344 are close to losing their eligibility, said Diane Stemper, executive director of financial aid.
“It does not leave students with a lot of good options other than loans,” she said.
At UA, 148 students have reached their Pell limit, including 119 seniors. Another 176 students, including 113 seniors, have less than a year left of Pell funding, said Cora Moretta, senior associate director of financial aid.
She said these students are only the most recent to be affected by tightened Pell grant eligibility in recent years.
Formerly, students were able to get Pell grants for any number of semesters until they graduated. In 2007, the number of semesters was reduced to 18.
Pell popular at UA
Along the way, the number of students receiving the aid has exploded.
At UA, for example, about 7,000 students claimed almost $17 million in Pell grants in 2006.
Four years later, almost 10,000 students received more than $34 million in Pell grants, according to the Project on Student Debt.
With less than two weeks to go until the start of the fall semester, UA senior Ervin is among those scrambling for a solution.
She already has tapped her lifetime limit of $57,500 in federal loans. She took out a $3,000 private loan this summer for college and does not want to ask her mother to co-sign for another loan for fall.
She said she hasn’t been able to find a full-time job.
“Where I’m applying, there are 100 other people applying,” she said in frustration.
She acknowledges she could have been speedier getting her bachelor’s degree.
“I have to take responsibility for myself, but life does take its toll,” she said. She got pregnant shortly after beginning college at Stark State.
Still, she has bigger goals: earning a master’s degree and launching her own business. If she can find a way to pay for this last semester, that is.
“Honestly, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. “This is leaving a ton of students in a pickle.”
Carol Biliczky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3729.