President Obama is set to make a series of speeches this week addressing college affordability—a hot topic on college campuses as new students move into their dorm rooms. An article in this morning’s New York Times provides some highlights of the plan. While there are other interesting proposals, most notably tying funding to some measure of college success, I’m focusing this brief post on the idea to disburse Pell Grants throughout the semester—“aid like a paycheck.”
The goal of “aid like a paycheck” is to spread grant aid disbursals out through the semester so students take ownership of their education. Sounds great, right? The problem is that it’s only been tested at a small number of community colleges in low-tuition states, such as California. If a student has more financial aid than the cost of attendance, then there is “extra” aid to disburse. But this doesn’t apply to the vast majority of students, particularly those at four-year schools. Spreading out aid awards for students with unmet need creates an even bigger financial gap at the beginning of the semester.
In order for “aid like a paycheck” to work for the vast majority of students, we have to make other costs look like a monthly bill. If students still have to pay for tuition, books, and housing upfront (or face a hefty interest rate), this program will create a yawning financial gap. If colleges want to be accountable to students, perhaps they should bill students per month for their courses—that way, dropped courses hurt the institution’s bottom line more than the student’s. This would delay funds coming in to a college, which can result in a loss of interest given the large amounts of tuition revenue.
Before we try “aid like a paycheck” on a large scale, Mr. President, let’s try making colleges get their funds from students in that same way. And let’s also get some research on how it works for students whose financial need isn’t fully met by the Pell Grant. The feds have the power to try demonstration programs, and this would be worth a shot.