The "myth" is that Pell Grants go mostly to minority students attending urban schools. In fact, a plurality of Pell Grants are awarded to rural students attending rural community colleges.
“It’s an urban myth that the Pell program only helps minority students from urban areas,” said Linda Serra Hagedorn of Iowa State University. “Our data shows that a plurality of grants go to rural students.”
Hagedorn was talking about a new report she and other researchers have produced on Pell grants, the federal program that helps qualifying students pay for the cost of college. Students can apply for yearly grants of up to $5,550 to help pay for tuition.
Much of that money is being used by rural students to go to community colleges in rural communities, according to a new report, “Pell Grants and the Lifting of Rural America’s Future,” a joint project of Iowa State, the University of Alabama and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. (You can get a full copy of the report here.)
Total enrollment at U.S. community colleges is split evenly among rural, suburban and urban locations, according to a classification done by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Among the approximately 600,000 new students who enrolled in community colleges between 2001 and 2008, 255,038 attended a rural institution.
(Katsinas and the other authors note that the U.S. Education Department measures community colleges by how “urban” they are. “No one and I mean NO ONE from Mason City, Iowa, or Scooba, Mississippi, defines their areas based upon how ‘urban’ their populations are (and this includes the people, the media, and the politicians),” Katsinas wrote in an email. “Yet this is the definition being used by our federal Department of Education.”)
The Carnegie data reveals that there are 3.3 million students attending 574 rural community colleges. Enrollment growth at rural schools has been higher than in urban or suburban schools.
And these students use Pell Grants, the scholars say. Rural students constitute 33 percent of all community college students, but use 39 percent of all Pell Grant awards in the nation.
“Pell is the single most important human resource development program for adults in America,” said Stephen G. Katsinas, from the University of Alabama. Rural community college students have the highest rate of participation, and the greatest need. Rural students have higher transportation costs and greater child care expenses than urban students.
As a result, rural students are more likely to incur a debt in order to go to college. Nearly half of the rural students in a 2008 survey were going into debt to attend a community college; nationally, 39 percent of students incur debt.
Katsinas and Hagedorn say the extent of Pell Grant use in rural communities is rarely a subject of discussion among education policy-makers because most Americans don’t realize the extent that rural students attend. In fact, six in ten community colleges in the country serve rural communities.
Pell Grants were particularly important to smaller colleges. In fact, the report found, “the smaller the college, the higher the percentage of student aid in Pell.”
The authors of the report looked at Kansas community colleges in detail. They surveyed 17 of 19 Kansas community colleges; 16 of the 17 were rural. They found that a recent increase in Pell funding had vastly increased college-going in these rural colleges.
“From Fall 2008 to Fall 2010, the dollar volume of Pell Grants awarded in Kansas grew from $20.5 to $40.4 million, an increase of just under $20 million or 98%,” the researchers found.
In just the rural community colleges in Kansas, Pell Grant funding increased from $14.5 to $26.9 million. There were large increases in enrollment in community colleges (even in areas where population had declined) and more students were enrolled full time.
At Garden City Community College, in Finney County, Kansas, the number of Pell Grant students increased from 538 to 748 between 2008 and 2010.
“By strengthening the base of full-time students, Pell has improved our economies of scale, enabling us to better serve our non-credit workforce training function to reach workers displaced by the recession,” Garden City Community College President Herbert J. Swender said.
Katsinas said the increase in education and training in Kansas community colleges was duplicated across the Great Plains. Increasing the educational levels of residents results in stronger local economies, according to the University of Alabama researcher. The report concluded:
In rural America, there is no training alternative to the rural community college. Their health is tied to the long-term skills of the rural workforce. By expanding the base of full– and part-time credit students with growing Pell funding, Kansas’ rural community colleges can better serve displaced workers. Thus, in a very practical way, federal funding through Pell —when combined with the federal “maintenance of effort” provisions that maintained state support and moderated tuition increases—builds the capacity of western and rural Kansas community colleges to better serve both for-credit transfer students and non-credit adults in need of retraining, to build Kansas’ businesses.
A Republican proposal in the House last year would reduce maximum Pell Grants to $3,150. The researcher surveyed state community college directors and found that 8 out of ten said this would result in lower community college enrollments in their states.