Rule changes could affect federal financial aid eligibility

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The current federal budget will change some students’ eligibility for financial aid. New requirements for the Pell Grant program will also change the way non-traditional students pay for college.

Financial aid supervisor Lisa Navarro says she’s seen it thousands of times. Students show up at Mount San Jacinto College on registration day with no high school diploma and no GED. But they still enroll in college-level courses and even qualify for federal financial aid to help pay for them.

"We find that we have older students that come back and attend school [...] that never graduated high school or got a GED ‘cause years ago, they quit and went to work," says Navarro. "So it’s not our younger population — we find that it’s our middle-aged students."

They could do it one of two ways: taking by the Ability to Benefit test (ABT) — a standardized assessment of basic skills like reading, writing, and math — or by successfully completing six credits.

Navarro says that gave students access to the Pell Grant, as well as "federal work study and student loans when we had them."

But budget cuts in federal financial aid programs mean these “prodigal” students will be out of luck starting July 1.

In the 2012 academic year, no high school diploma plus no GED equals no financial aid. No more ABT.

Although the new rules will apply to all college students who seek federal help, those in community college will feel the effects most. Especially immigrants and students who may not be pursuing four-year degrees but who want to develop new job skills. The colleges that enroll them could lose out, too.

California is compounding the effects of federal cuts to education with its own budget reductions and the elimination of adult education programs that traditionally offered GED prep classes.

"The ones who have already taken [ABT], before the July 1 deadline [in] 2012 will kind of be grandfathered in," Navarro assured current students, "so they don’t have to worry."

The Pell Grant program will also reduce students’ eligibility from 18 semesters to 12, and from two grants a year to one.

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