WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) – The federal government awarded $2.2 million in grants last year to area college students who failed or withdrew from all their classes – and most of that money won't be repaid, a WECT investigation uncovered.
The Pell Grants not only cover tuition and other college costs. Any money that's left is given to the student.
About 500 students who withdrew or failed received the grants each semester, fall 2012 and spring 2013.
WECT analyzed financial aid records from Bladen Community College, Brunswick Community College, Cape Fear Community College and Southeastern Community College.
UNC Wilmington awarded more than $14 million in Pell Grants, but the university was unable to produce a report that showed how much money went to students who withdrew or failed, according to Janine Iamunno, executive director of university relations.
Miller-Motte College, which has a campus in Wilmington, awards Pell Grants, but its spokesman, Chuck Vella, said the private institution would not release its records.
The Federal Pell Grant Program, intended to promote college access, provides need-based grants to low-income students.
Grant amounts are based on students' expected family contributions; the cost of attendance at their colleges, whether they attend full-time or part-time, and whether they attend for a full academic year. The maximum Pell Grant award for 2012-2013 was $5,550.
Students who fail all their classes or withdraw during the last 40 percent of the semester don't have to repay the grants, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Those who withdraw earlier are required to repay a portion of the grants, but WECT uncovered that area students have repaid less than 15 percent of the amount they owe from last year.
Jo-Ann Craig, financial aid director at Cape Fear Community College, said it's "disheartening" when a student receives a Pell Grant and doesn't complete class, but she doesn't have any evidence of students trying to cheat the system.
"I don't think anybody sets out to abuse the system on purpose. I'd like to believe that," she said.
Students often withdraw from all their classes for legitimate reasons, according to Craig.
"There are instances, and a great many number of instances, where life takes over and students for whatever reason are not able to continue enrollment in classes," she said. "There's a death in the family, there's a transportation issues, the student can't come to class, can't get to class. They return in a subsequent class and they flourish. They do very well."
Heather Jones is one of those students.
The 29-year-old mother of three received a Pell Grant to attend college five years ago. But as a single mother, she didn't have much of a support system and had to withdrew.
Now married, Jones is attending CFCC and earning As in all her classes except one.
"The one class I'm having trouble in is pre-calculus. I'm not very good at math," she said.
She is majoring in elementary education and plans to attend UNCW's school of education after earning her associate's degree.
"I really want to impact children's lives positively. I love kids, and I just want to teach them and watch them grow and just impact their lives."
Jones works as a server about 25 hours a week, but she said without Pell Grants she wouldn't be able to go to college.
After paying her tuition and books, she uses the remaining grant money to pay a babysitter for her younger children.
"These students don't live in a vacuum," said Jo-Ann Craig, financial aid director at Cape Fear Community College. "They have to pay rent. They have to buy a bus pass or they have to put gas in their car. They have to eat lunches. So, the excess Pell Grant, excess financial aid funds, are intended to offset those living expenses."
The federal government determines students' Pell Grant eligibility based on information submitted in their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
"We have no authority to change a student's financial aid availability or deny a student the financial aid for which he qualifies, absolutely no campus authority," Craig said.
"There are students who receive funding from federal and state sources who sit in a seat that would have otherwise gone to a student who would have finished the program, who might have been a more serious student, who might have been a more successful student, and that is also troublesome."
She added that discussions are taking place at the national level about giving campuses more authority in making award decisions.
"How long it will take to implement is anyone's guess," she said.
The federal government has reduced the time that a student can be awarded Pell Grants. Effective July 2012, students can receive the grants for no more than 12 semesters, or roughly six years.
A student has to make "satisfactory academic progress" in order to continue receiving federal student aid. This includes making good enough grades and completing enough classes to move toward the successful completion of a degree in a time period that's acceptable to the student's school.
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