U.S. Department of Education will expand Pell Grant program for high school students enrolled in college courses.

college-coursesA pilot program to expand federal financial aid to high school students taking college courses will make college more affordable and accessible for low-income students, Pennsylvania community college officials said.

The U.S. Department of Education announced that it would put up to $20 million in the Pell Grant program for up to 10,000 high school “dual enrollment” students in the 2016-17 school year.

High school enrollment in specialized programs has fallen at some local colleges as costs have gone up. Pell grants would essentially subsidize those credits for low-income students, potentially boosting the number of high school students who take the college courses and then pursue college degrees.

“It’s an absolutely terrific initiative,” said Paul Drayton, president of Rowan College at Burlington County.

“This is just another way for students and parents to address the affordability challenge,” he said. “It’s a shorter period of time, obviously, that they need to stay in college, therefore they’re paying less. And they’ll also be better prepared to take the college courses once they arrive on the campuses of the colleges of their choice.”

The Burlington County college will “absolutely” apply to join the Pell Grant pilot program, Drayton said.

The school enrolls about 80 students a year in a dual enrollment program, under which high school students attend courses on its college campuses.

An additional 2,000 or so students receive college credit through higher-level classes taught by teachers at the high schools.

Drayton said the Pell Grant program could especially help first-generation students, who may not have an expectation of attending college. By taking college courses while still in high school, he said, those students get a taste of the college experience.

David E. Thomas, dean of access and community engagement at Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), agreed.

“It increases college access,” he said. “There is mounting evidence that taking college courses during high school increases college readiness of students who would otherwise not be college-bound.

“Many of those students who academically could do it have never had a model of doing it.”

By taking the college courses while still in high school, Thomas said, students can turn to either school for academic or social support. A student who may not know where to turn to for help in college can still talk to a high school guidance counselor, a teacher, or the principal.

“It provides a dual layer of support for the student,” Thomas said.

Thomas said the cost of college had had a clear effect on enrollment. CCP had 541 students in its traditional dual enrollment program last year, taking 792 courses at a discounted rate of just under $100 a credit, or about $300 a course.

A few years ago, when public funds subsidized the program, he said, it had 1,200 students.

That mirrors the experience at Camden County College, where 1,942 students were registered in 2014. At that time, courses cost $107, said Donald Borden, the school’s executive vice president.

When Camden County College raised that cost to $150, a 9.3 percent drop in enrollment, to 1,762 students, followed, Borden said – “an indication to us that low-income students had a hard time meeting that $43 more.”

That’s where the federal grants would come in, he said.

“Our position on almost any issue,” Borden said, “is that we would love to help low-income students begin to acquire credits and have an opportunity to move their college programs along and get to the end of that as quickly as possible.”

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