Despite broader political turmoil in Washington, D.C., and Tallahassee, federal and state lawmakers have agreed to dramatically increase financial aid to the neediest college and university students.
On May 4, the U.S. Senate approved a series of budget bills that will fund the federal government through Sept. 30, including the extension of Pell grants to cover summer classes for the first time since 2011. Pell grants are the largest federal grant program aimed at students with financial need.
Four days later, the Florida Legislature overwhelmingly approved a new state budget that includes a major expansion of higher-education aid programs, including the Florida “student assistance grants,” the state’s largest need-based aid program for economically challenged students.
“It was Christmas in May,” said Darryl Marshall, director of financial aid at Florida State University. “This is a huge win for students.”
He said expansion of the federal and state financial-aid programs will have an impact throughout higher-education institutions in Florida, including lowering student debt and giving students more options for support.
Pell grants, which can be used in public and private institutions, play a large role in the state university system, with 39 percent of undergraduates receiving the grants in fall 2015, according to the state Board of Governors.
At the high end, more than 65 percent of the students at Florida A&M University and 51 percent of the students at Florida International University received the awards, which do not have to be repaid. At the lower end, Florida State University and New College of Florida each reported about 28 percent of their undergraduates had Pell grants.
Pell grants are equally important in the 28-school state college system. Miami-Dade College, the largest school, reported 53 percent of its students had Pell grants in the 2014-15 academic year, with annual awards averaging $3,934.
Although grants are distributed using a complicated formula, as a general rule students coming from families with less than $30,000 in annual income qualify for a full award, which is currently capped at just under $6,000.
Students have not been able to use Pell grants for summer classes since the end of the 2010-11 academic year because of federal budget cutbacks.
Marshall, the FSU financial-aid director, said some students will benefit from the Pell summer extension this year, although he said he doesn’t expect the full benefits to be realized until next summer because of the timing of the congressional decision.
The future of the extension remains in doubt after Sept. 30 as Congress has struggled in recent years with passing long-term budgets, although U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been supportive of summer Pell grants.
The Pell summer extension is particularly important in Florida because the state’s main need-based aid program, the Florida student-assistance grants, does not cover summer terms.
However, the 2017-18 state budget, which is awaiting the governor’s review, includes a record funding boost of $121 million in the student-assistance grant program, which now serves some 133,000 students who receive an average annual award of $1,113.
About 78 percent of the program’s funding goes to state university and college students, with 12 percent for private college students and 10 percent for students enrolled in other post-secondary programs, including career-training initiatives.
The state support works in conjunction with the Pell grants, with students qualifying for the programs by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form.
At Florida State, Marshall said about 3,000 of the more than 10,000 Pell grant students also receive Florida student-assistance grant support, a number he expects to grow with the Legislature’s expansion of the program.
Marshall said the increase in the Pell grant and state-assistance programs will have several effects, including a new push by education officials to encourage more student to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms to determine their eligibility.
“Hopefully, the message will get out to our students and their parents to complete the FAFSA,” Marshall said.
More important, Marshall said the boost in need-based aid will result in students taking out fewer loans, avoiding a debt burden as they begin their careers.
“It’s a big win,” Marshall said. “The more need-based grant dollars, the less loan debt.”
The need-based aid expansion may also help students who receive merit-based aid, like the state’s Bright Futures scholarships.
The Legislature this spring increased the top-level Bright Futures award to cover full tuition and fees as well as summer classes. But the expansion did not extend to the lower-level Bright Futures “medallion scholars,” who still will have to pay part of their tuition and all of the summer classes.
Marshall said some of the merit scholarship students will now also qualify for the expanded need-based aid because of their financial circumstances.
But the expansion of the Florida need-based aid, like the federal Pell grants, faces some political uncertainty. Gov. Rick Scott has threatened to veto all or part of the new state budget because of lawmakers’ failure to fund business-incentive and tourism programs that he supported.
However, Scott has been a consistent supporter of reducing the cost of higher education in Florida, including taking a firm stand against tuition and fee increases.