After working toward it for five years, Lori Colbart will receive her degree this week. But she very nearly didn't make it.
Colbart, a student at Oklahoma City Community College, graduates Friday with an associate's degree in music and a near-perfect 3.9 GPA.
In August, she plans to attend Mid-America Christian University, where she was offered a full scholarship. Eventually, she hopes to finish her master's degree and become a music therapist.
“I want to be Dr. Lori,” she said.
But those plans were nearly derailed by changes to the federal financial aid system that took effect in July.
Under existing rules, community college students who receive federal financial aid, including Pell Grants and federal student loans, lose their aid packages after 150 percent of the credit hours it would take to complete the degree. For example, if a degree would normally require 60 credit hours, the student would lose eligibility after 90 credit hours.
Colbart received federal financial aid, including Pell Grants, to pay for her education. She couldn't have afforded to go to school otherwise, she said. But earlier in her career at the college, she switched majors from biochemistry to music — a move that put her behind and eventually pushed her beyond the 90-credit limit.
When she reached that mark, Colbart was just 12 credits short of graduating. The news that she might not be able to finish her degree left her shocked and afraid, she said.
“I cried,” she said.
When a student loses eligibility for federal financial aid, he or she may file an appeal requesting an extension of those benefits. However under the new rules, the appeal process is much lengthier and more restrictive, and requires more documentation than in years past.
Colbart was in a better position to navigate the changes, she said, because she works in OCCC's Office of Student Life. Her boss knew who to call and what questions to ask to help her resolve the situation. Despite that advantage, Colbart received word about the extension just days before the semester started.
“Thank God that the money came through,” she said. “Without it, I would not be graduating.”
Colbart isn't alone. Harold Case, OCCC's director of student financial support services, said last year's changes had a significant impact on students. And another upcoming round of changes to the system could do major harm to students' ability to pay for college, he said.
The changes, collectively called the Pell Grant Protection Act, were part of an effort to make the program leaner and more sustainable. The changes, which were included in the federal budget for fiscal year 2012-13, take effect in July.
One of those changes reduces the eligibility period from 18 semesters to 12 semesters, meaning students who have received Pell Grants for six years will be cut off from further funding. Another change requires students to have either a high school diploma or GED certificate to be eligible for the grants.
The idea behind the requirement is to assess a factor known as ability to benefit — that is, the probability that the student will succeed in college. However, under previous regulations, students without a high school diploma or GED could meet that mark by taking certain tests or by passing a sampling of coursework.
Community college officials statewide have expressed concern about the change, saying it would hit them the hardest. Students with no high school diploma or GED are more likely to get their start at community colleges, which have no admission requirements, officials say.
The loss of Pell Grant eligibility for those students could make “a significant impact” on the college, Case said. In the past, such open-access schools acted as a kind of refuge for students who might not be accepted at four-year colleges. While those students would still be eligible to attend OCCC, Case said, the new regulations hamper the college's ability to help them pay for their education.
In the meantime, community colleges are encouraging prospective students without a high school diploma or a GED to apply for financial aid before the June 30 cutoff date. Students who miss that date could also take the GED to qualify for assistance.
After that point, said John Horinek, OCCC's recruitment and admissions director, students without either qualification will have much more limited financial aid options.
“If students are on the fence about starting their college education, now is the time to decide,” Horinek said.