This Change Could Make College More Affordable For Millions Of Students

Rep. Elise Stefanik has been pushing for year-round Pell Grants for two years.

A new deal in Washington might help you pay for your college degree — and finish it even faster.

The spending bill adopted by Congress and the White House in recent weeks includes language that allows students to tap into federally funded Pell Grants year-round. That means low-income students can now use this form of college aid — which unlike loans doesn't need to be paid back — for summer classes, too.

“Being able to apply for Pell Grants year-round will increase graduation rates, will increase college completion, and that helps us tackle the student loan debt challenge that we face,” Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik, who pushed for the change in the House version of the spending bill, told Refinery29.

Stefanik, who has been calling for the change for two years, says the expansion will be a big boost to “non-traditional” students, an umbrella term that includes students who are returning to finish a degree later in life, working full-time while studying, are military vets, or even parents. Supporters say taking courses in the summer could help these students graduate and get into the job market faster — and hopefully with less debt.

“They want to get their degree as quickly as possible,” Stefanik said. “Their lives aren’t structured in the traditional sense, where many students have an internship over the summer.”

The shift back to year-round grant access is one of several higher-education fixes backed by the House Republican Policy Committee’s Millennial Task Force, which Stefanik chairs (at 32, she’s a millennial herself, and the youngest woman ever elected to Congress). She cites tuition freezes and increased financial literacy around how much debt a student can expect to take out — and how long it will take to pay it back in their career of choice — as two key steps to tackling the student debt crisis.

The New York Republican dismissed Democrat-backed proposals to create tuition-free college, including the one in her home state, as impractical. “My concern with some of the proposals that colleagues have introduced across the aisle is that it would be an increase of costs on the taxpayers,” she said. “Someone is going to have to pay for that.”

Pell Grants, meanwhile, have long had support from politicians on both sides of the aisle. But that hasn't protected their funding from political jockeying. Access was expanded to year round under former President George W. Bush, then rolled back as part of a budget deal during Obama’s first term. This time, the expansion again had bipartisan backing, with Democrats also calling for the change.

One big question moving forward is whether overall funding for Pell and other programs that help low-income students will take a hit under the eventual budget agreement. The recent spending bill only funds the government through the end of the current fiscal year, which ends in September.