Pell Grant, campus resources key in transforming student lives

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Now in her second year, Alina Coronado works as a financial aid peer adviser and a resident adviser. She's active in MEChA de UCSC, an organization committed to the advancement and civil rights of Chicano students. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Growing up in a small town west of Sacramento, Alina Coronado was determined to go to college but had no idea how she would pay for it. She’d never heard of the late Sen. Claiborne Pell, whose work more than 45 years ago helped to give every student an opportunity for a higher education, regardless of their economic background. As the eldest of three children, she’d be the first in her family to go to college.

Now in her second year at UC Santa Cruz, Coronado is among the roughly 40 percent of students to receive a Pell Grant. She also works as a financial aid peer adviser and a resident adviser, and she’s active in MEChA de UCSC, an organization committed to the advancement and civil rights of Chicano students.

“I am extremely grateful for the opportunity this has unlocked for me,” said Coronado, a cognitive science major who hopes to research the development of human speech. “By receiving this assistance and support, I could accept an offer from UCSC, and my outlook on my future career could become more visibly available to me.”

The Pell Grant is the flagship federal student aid program that helps provide college access each year to millions of students from the lowest family incomes. According to the U.S. Department of Education, almost $27 billion is disbursed annually to more than 8.3 million students through the Pell grant. Unlike student loans, this is needs-based grant money that doesn’t have to be paid back.

The Pell Grant can pay up to about half the in-state tuition at University of California campuses, and is an extremely valuable program, said Richard Hughey, vice provost and dean of Undergraduate Education at UC Santa Cruz.

“Education is vital to a healthy and productive life for anybody,” he said, “and the Pell Grants positively impact students, helping them to become graduates and become ready for future jobs and future studies with a level of experience and critical thinking and skills that will help them succeed.”

Recent data shows how UC schools lead the way in enrollment and six-year graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients. Forty-two percent of all first-time degree-seeking students at UC schools in 2010 were Pell Grant recipients, compared with 22 percent at other schools. And for those Pell recipients, UC schools reported an 81 percent six-year graduation rate, compared with 86 percent for non-Pell students.

At UC Santa Cruz, Hughey said, most Pell students graduate in about four years. The changes that will make more students eligible to receive the Pell Grant for summer classes in 2018 can further speed student achievement, he added.

“Financially, the very best thing that any student can do—regardless of income level—is to graduate quickly. They can then move on to the next stage of their education or the start of their career. Being able to have students attend during summers will be hugely important.”

However, students should take advantage of college life outside of coursework, too.

“It’s important for them to expand with leadership, knowledge, internships, undergraduate research, mentoring, and campus or community activities,” Hughey said. “Pell Grants give a little more room for that and may reduce the need to carry multiple jobs and work more than 10 to 15 hours a week.”

After all, financial aid isn’t the only determiner of student success.

“There’s a strong commitment by UC Santa Cruz faculty and staff to make sure we’re supporting all of our students, wherever they’re coming from or whatever their background or income level might be.”