Disabled Students Left Behind by Pell Grants? Not All Diplomas Created Equal

pellgrantOregon has several diploma levels for public high school graduates.  The two most common of these, the standard diploma and the GED certificate, qualify students to receive a Pell Grant from the federal government.  The grant is far better than a student loan, as it does not need to be paid back. For many teens, this is their only way into college—but under current policies, concerns are being raised about the potential for diploma classification to prevent a student from being eligible for the grant.

One of these alternative classifications is the “Modified Diploma” which is intended for students who “have demonstrated an inability to meet the full set of academic content standards required for a regular high school diploma.”  These students may have disabilities running the gamut from physical to mental to learning disabilities of varying levels. Similar to the modified track is the “Extended,” which offers the student more time to complete the credit requirements of the modified diploma track. There is also an Alternative Education Certificate which is used more often for students with discipline issues. This occurs, for instance, when there is an actual crime committed on school grounds and legally, or at a teacher’s behest, the student is not being welcomed back into class with the other students.

Verified by the US Department of Education, current policy dictates that only the standard diploma or GED certificate will qualify. Students receiving the Modified, Extended or Alternative diplomas may get consideration for other grants, but are completely disqualified from consideration for Pell funding.

This is troubling for a number of reasons.

Country-Vitamins_5.9 (1)Students with discipline, mental or physical disability issues that prevent them from participating in the classroom with other students are often the ones in need of the grant the most. These students are already starting off their professional development at a disadvantage, and now by being further hampered from getting a higher education degree, they are only going to find it harder to provide for themselves without tax funded support from local, state or federal government. While tax payers may be saving money by not providing the grant, they are surely paying more in the long run when the student eventually finds themselves on welfare or some other form of government dependence.

“It’s definitely an issue,” said Crystal Greene, Director of Communications for the Oregon Department of Education. “It’s an important piece of information parents must consider when making those choices for their kids.”

Beyond the financial needs of the student is the issue of fairness. The modified diploma requires the same number of credits as the standard diploma, albeit with some differences in classes.  However, according to the ODE, students may take a mix of classes from special education instructors and the regular classes at school. This means a student may get a modified diploma even if they took almost entirely the same course load.  Additionally, a student with disciplinary problems as a freshman, or even soon before graduation as a senior, may be shunted to a alternative certificate program, and while they may be forgiven their disciplinary issue by a college and accepted, they would still be disqualified from getting the vital financial support they deserve.

Greene says ODE has not yet addressed the issue in meetings or planned legislation, but that they are aware of the concerns.

This may not be a frequent problem yet, as the alternative programs were only launched in the 2008-2009 school year, but they are sure to be seen down the line.

The Department of Education should address it before it gets there.

By Ygal Kaufman


Forever: Too Long to Learn from Mistakes?

While it is established that under current policies children with mental and physical disabilities may wind up with a non-standard diploma that can make them ineligible for the Pell Grant, what about students that receive these diplomas for other reasons?

Disciplinary issues amongst teens are nothing new. We’ve all made our mistakes, and when we’re punished we tend to learn from them. A High School student may face dire consequences for crimes as varied as marijuana possession to bringing a weapon to school. In many cases, the experience of expulsion will help a troubled kid eventually develop maturity in their decision-making. Now, depending on how those proceedings go, where the child is at in their progress through school and so forth, they may be staring down the barrel at some form of alternative diploma. While the Alternative, Modified and Extended diplomas do offer students an opportunity to go on to earn a Standard diploma, at this point the damage may have already been done and the opportunity fully evaporated. And this doesn’t even take into account what level of help this child needs, whether they’re suffering from undiagnosed mental illness, or any number of unforeseen and difficult circumstances.

Like any other government spending, the Pell Grant has a budget and they have to draw an eligibility line somewhere—but is this the right place? College is about bettering ourselves and the Pell Grant is the only way a lot of us can pay for it. Getting buried under so much rubble in these instances seem to echo a punishment that does not fit the crime, paid out to developing young adults that are still learning how to live.

By Johnny Beaver