Ann Hall is 24 credits, less than a year’s worth of classes, away from finishing a bachelor’s degree in Human Services.
However, when the Budget Control Act of 2011 passed last December, the federal government tightened the eligibility criteria for students receiving Pell Grants and federal loans. Those changes went into effect in July and Hall found out during the first week of the 2012 fall term at Kenai Peninsula College that she had no money to pay for school. Her financial aid appeal, a requirement for students who don’t meet federal criteria for satisfactory academic progress, had been denied.
Eric Pedersen, Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said of the 11,200 students receiving financial aid 1,190 of them had to apply for waivers since the fall 2011 semester and of those, about 90 saw their appeals denied.
Among the recent changes, the lifetime limit for a Pell grant has been lowered to six years of full time study, a change which is expected to cause more than 100,000 students nationwide to lose their grants regardless of how far along they are in school, according to the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit educational research group.
Hall, 38, has been school for a long time.
When she was 19 she left high school for Tyler College in Texas for a paralegal program.
“I didn’t like it, I wanted to come home and I was homesick,” Hall said. “So I came back here.”
Hall said she went to the University of Alaska Anchorage but she got pregnant with her son at 20 and moved back to Kenai.
“I’ve been here ever since,” she said. “I had a lot of useless credits. I actually got a degree in 1996 in Office Management,” she said. “All of those classes don’t count toward my degree now, except for the English I took and the Speech, all they count for is electives. But they count toward my total number of credits.”
Still, despite having spent several years in school Hall said she’s nowhere near hitting the lifetime limit on her Pell eligibility.
She ran into trouble meeting the federal government’s new guidelines for satisfactory academic progress. Specifically she has more than 150 percent of the credits she would need to graduate with her bachelor’s degree.
“We call it quantity, quality and time to completion,” said Bill Howell, director of student services at Kenai Peninsula College, of the recent changes.
Quality means the student has to maintain a grade point average of 2.0 on a 4.0 scale, quantity means they have to complete two-thirds of the credits they sign up for and they have complete their degree without going over more than 150 percent of the credits required for their program, Howell said.
Students who miss any of these criteria must file financial aid waivers if they want to continue to receive their financial aid.
Hall said she got a divorce in 2005 and became a single mom. She also hurt her back, one of a myriad of medical issues that has plagued her during recent years and part of the reason, she said, she’s had to drop classes over the past couple of years.
Dropping those classes, however, means she’s violating the two-thirds rule and not completing enough of them.
But, none of those things stopped her from attending school and she kept picking away at the classes she needed to graduate, hoping to eventually gain her master’s degree and get into the type of work she could do without having to stand for hours on end.
During that time, Hall said she didn’t apply for federal financial aid. She paid for one semester out of pocket in 2009 before qualifying for a Workforce Investment Act Grant and another through Vocational Rehabilitation.
“I had an old default on a loan,” she said. “When I got divorced, everything was in my name so I was stupid. I paid for the house and the car and everything first and I let that loan go. But, I sold my house that year so I could pay off every debt I had so I could go to school again.”
The 2011-12 school year was the first one in which Hall applied for federal financial aid.
Then, in January Hall fell and broke her leg after registering for full semester of classes.
“I still tried to go to school, I had surgery, I figured I’d just be out for a week,” Hall said. “I couldn’t even hobble on my left leg because I have nerve damage there from my back surgery. I had one class that I was making up an incomplete from when my sister died, that’s the only class I could complete. All of the rest of them, I tried for a while but I had to drop them.”
First, she had to come up with a plan for graduation. An e-mail with a list of classes she needed took care of that requirement, Hall said.
Pedersen said that plan, or the academic plan, was one of the biggest changes that came from the U.S. Department of Education.
“In the past, if you failed to meet what’s called satisfactory academic progress colleges could do lot of different things, eventually the student could file an appeal it was kind of a big blanket and they were able to get their financial aid,” he said. “Now they have to file an academic plan with their advisor that demonstrates how they will get back into good status and stay in good status.”
Pedersen said that plan has to be reviewed every semester until the student is back in good academic standing.
“For some students it’s easy, they write the plan and they have no more issues,” he said. “Other students could have multiple issues, they could be under this academic plan for two, four, six, eight semesters. As long as they follow the plan they will continue to receive financial aid.”
For Hall, however, filing an academic plan wasn’t the only requirement. She also had to apply for a waiver because of her credit completion rate.
“I’ve had two major medical issues happen to me in one year plus someone died within two years,” she said. “I’m kind of at-risk type individual even though I have a good GPA and I do well in my classes when they’re complete. I have a 3.2 GPA.”
Hall started classes last week, along with the rest of the KPC and UAA student population, without knowing if her latest financial aid appeal had been granted. Her vocational rehab grant was also on hold, she said.
“They’re waiting to see what happens,” she said. “They have to follow the federal rules too.”
Pedersen said the three major state aid programs students at UAA receive funding from — UA Scholars, Alaska Performance Scholarship and the Alaska Education Grant — follow the same academic progress guidelines as the federal government.
So a student who didn’t qualify for federal aid could also find their state aid on hold as well.
Pedersen said he didn’t think the guidelines were unreasonable.
“Our whole university system is really addressing the issue of time to graduation and our graduation rates,” Pedersen said. “There will always be part time students that have different issues and maybe they can’t race right through in four years, but we would like the students to have a plan and make the best use of their time and everyone’s resources.”
When Hall’s appeal was denied, her Vocational Rehab grant was denied as well, but Hall found out her Workforce Investment Act grant was being reinstated. Otherwise she’d have dropped out of a class this semester, further impacting her financial aid.
“I keep pushing now because I’m so close and I want to get it done,” she said. “I don’t know what else to do because I’m kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place. I don’t have a lot of different opportunities. I can’t go to Walmart or anything like that. I physically can’t do that. If I was a welfare participant, which I’m not, they’d say, ‘Can’t you go work at Fred Meyer or Walmart?’ I physically can’t. I can’t stand on concrete.”
She’s hoping to graduate in one year and despite all of trouble, Hall said she doesn’t regret being in and out of school for more than a decade.
“It’s just how life worked out at the time,” she said. “I really didn’t know any better when I was young. You don’t really know what you want to do, then you come back here (to Kenai) and there’s really not a lot to choose from. That’s really what it is. I have a lot of classes that are useless for a bachelor’s degree.”
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.