Rural Students Clamor for New Pell Grants

[imgbelt img=in-the-hall-bevill530.jpg]Rural community colleges outnumber suburban and urban campuses, and rural community college students are the fastest growing group, too. New year-round grant opportunities appear to be drawing even more rural adults back to school.


federal enrollment data for academic year 2005-06, of the 860 community college districts in our nation, 553 or 64% were rural. These rural community college districts enroll 37% of all two-year college students, while urban community colleges enroll only 31%.

And rural community colleges are growing faster than any other type: they grew faster (over 1 million students, a 42% increase) than urban (21%) or suburban (27%) community colleges in this same period, 2000-2006. Here is strong evidence of rural America’s “pent-up” demand for degrees and lifelong learning.

But a desire for postsecondary education is not enough: you have to have the means.  And for this reason the Pell Grant, the federal government’s main scholarship offering for low-income undergraduates, is now the single most important human-resource development program for rural America.
[imgcontainer left] [img:bevill-state320.jpg] [source]Derrick Flowers and LaKetra Wright

Bevill State Community College has four campuses and several outreach centers in western Alabama, including Pickens County’s Carrollton Center.

Bevill State Community College, a four-campus community college district that serves a sprawling, sparsely populated area of west-central Alabama, is run by one of the more effective rural community college presidents in the country, Dr. Anne McNutt. A couple of weeks ago, I visited Bevill State’s Carrollton Center in Pickens County to meet with Ed Davis and Marty Wiseman from the Stennis Institute of Government from Mississippi State University (Carrollton is exactly halfway between our two universities).

Pickens County, straddling the Alabama-Mississippi border, is one of the poorest counties in the United States.

It did not take long to see that something unusual was happening here. Long lines of students snaked through the hallways, a rare sight in Carrollton. They had come to sign up for the first-ever summer portion of the year-round Pell Grant program; their presence attests to the impact this program makes in rural students’ lives.

[imgcontainer left] [img:in-the-hall-orange-320.jpg] [source]Derrick Flowers and LaKetra Wright

Aneka Hopkins and Larry Hill (from left) wait their turn to apply for year-round Pell Grants at the Carrolllton, Alabama, branch of Bevill State Community College. Summer 2010 enrollment is already 47% higher than last summer.
Under the old Pell Grant system, students could receive funding for college education in two of three sessions: fall, spring and summer. The new system allows funding in all three terms.

My Bevill State colleagues reported that across Bevill’s four campuses and outreach centers (Carrollton being one), 2,630 students enrolled in Summer 2009; 36% of them, more than a third, received Pell Grants. As of last week (additional enrollments will come for the later summer session) Summer 2010 enrollment was 3,038, an increase of 408 students or 13% over last summer. And of this summer’s students, 1,647 have Pell Grants, including 520 on the new year-round Pell Grant. Recipients of the newly extended Pell Grant account for a large portion (more than 1/6th) of Bevill’s record Summer 2010 enrollment.

The result has been particulrly evident in Pickens County. Total Summer 2009 enrollment here was 169 students, of whom 106 or 63% received Pell Grants; preliminary Summer 2010 enrollment data (which is certain to rise) shows a record 249 enrolled, of whom 189 or 75% are Pell Grant recipients. That three of every four Pickens County students are on Pell Grants shows the startling importance of the new year-round program.