Pell grants should go (only) to needy students who are ready for college

What if federal aid for college students were focused exclusively on those who are truly ready for college? What if we stopped subsidizing remedial courses on campuses and insisted that students pursuing higher learning be prepared for college-level courses (none too strenuous nowadays in many places)? And what if those courses were also made available to young people even before they matriculated to a four-year program?

That would be a revelation and a revolution. But it might also do more to get young Americans and their schools serious about college readiness than anything we’ve dreamed up previously. It would save money. And it would end a great fraud that causes many college students to drop out—usually with heavy loan debts to either repay or default on—when they realize that they’ve been sorely misled as to their true preparedness for advanced-level academics.

Consider the irony: Today, federal financial support is available for eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds to study high school math and English after they reach a college campus (a vast percentage of them are required to take these remedial classes); yet such aid is unavailable to academically aggressive sixteen- and seventeen-year olds from low-income households, who could accelerate their academic progress by taking bona fide college-level work while still in high school. It’s also true, sadly, that many of these students attend schools that do not make these college-level courses available. 

The Brookings Institution’s Isabel Sawhill has bravely suggested that Pell grants, which cost taxpayers $35 billion annually, be limited to credit-bearing courses at the college level. And the other day, the Education Department launched an “experiment” to make Pell grants cover the tuition costs of “dual enrollment” for high-achieving high school students who take college-credit classes (either on campus or online).

It’s a good start, though it appears that this option won’t work in America’s burgeoning crop of “early college high schools,” which don't charge tuition. But a leader of one of those schools remarked to me, “This is an important step in the right direction toward incentivizing the development and growth of early college high schools and finding sustainable funding.”   

She knows more than I do. Still and all, I have no reason to doubt the Education Department’s distinguished under-secretary, Ted Mitchell, when he writes that the “experiment will enable high school students enrolled in dual enrollment programs that are offered by participating institutions to access federal Pell Grants. We hope that this experiment will help us understand the impact of Pell Grants on opportunities for students from low-income backgrounds to participate and succeed in dual enrollment programs. We also hope that the students we reach will be able to earn enough college credit to help them complete college more quickly, and with less debt.”

I hope so too. It’s an utterly worthwhile objective. So is Dr. Sawhill’s goal of getting the fraud, fakery, and exorbitant costs out of today’s federal student aid programs and converting them into bona fide assistance for those who are actually ready for college-level academics.

Neither Mitchell nor Sawhill put it this way, but another huge benefit of such a strategy would be a boost for high-ability, high-achieving students to get through K–12 education in less than thirteen years and proceed to college and whatever follows. Acceleration is, in fact, the “gifted education” strategy with the most robust research base by far. A lot of schools and districts discourage it, however, and many parents are wary of moving their daughters or sons ahead in school faster than their contemporaries. So let’s celebrate Uncle Sam for trying, if only “experimentally,” to give this strategy a needed fiscal boost. 

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Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.