Buried in the back of a bill that recently cleared the Senate appropriations committee are potentially massive changes to federal financial aid. The proposed legislation, an omnibus appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, contains a clause that would cut needs-based grants for online students and redefines the period of Stafford Loan Eligibility for full-time students.
A provision in the bill would prevent students who take online classes from claiming room and board and “miscellaneous person expenses”—like a computer—as part of the cost of attending college when applying for a Pell Grant.
The living expense categories are not being removed from the on-campus and commuter student classifications and online students will still be able to use them in applications for other forms of financial aid. Online education experts and advocates are confused by the proposed language of in the bill.
“Why are they proposing this change? I don’t know,” writes Russell Poulin, deputy director for research and analysis with the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, in a letter posted to the organization’s website. Poulin explained that the use of online courses by faculty and students is “more of a continuum” than well-defined categories.
Poulin goes on to state that, with the emergence of hybrid digital and face-to-face courses, “wherever you drop the axe” on the continuum of e-learning is “relatively arbitrary.” He also draws attention to similar problems veterans faced after the passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2008.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill removed housing allowance for veterans taking only online courses. In 2010 Congress passed GI Bill 2.0, which restored some, but not all, of the housing allowances for veterans using online courses and gave students who attended at least one traditional course the full stipend.
The proposed bill also includes changes to Stafford Loan eligibility that will prevent full-time students who have been enrolled for longer than 150% of the published length of the program from receiving new loans. In general, 150% of the published length translates to three years for an associate degree and six years for a bachelor’s degree.
Regulations regarding the length of Stafford Loan eligibility for students who are attending school less than full-time are left to the Secretary of Education to be determined. If passed, the proposed Stafford Loans and Pell Grant changes would take effect July 1, 2013.
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