Going to college can be an expensive proposition. Tuition has been rising steadily in North Carolina and in other states. Many students receive aid in the form of a federal Pell Grant, but the Pell Grant Program faces problems and needs serious reform. Dr. Jenna Ashley Robinson, director of outreach at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, has been studying this issue. She recently shared her research during testimony before a congressional subcommittee. Robinson also discussed the issue with me for Carolina Journal Radio. Here’s an excerpt.

Martinez: How expensive is this program to the taxpayer?

Robinson: It changes a little bit from year to year based on how many applicants there are, and where those students end up going to school. But it’s generally in the ballpark of $33 billion to $36 billion a year.

Martinez: And we’re talking billion with a B here?

Robinson: Yes.

Martinez: So how many students, roughly, are being given these grants?

Robinson: Again, that changes from year to year. But it is more than a quarter of all the students in the United States.

Martinez: Does anybody have to pay this money back? Are there any rules that apply to the grants?

Robinson: There are rules, and it’s something called a clawback. So if a student goes to school for a semester and then drops out, within a certain number of parameters, then it’s possible for the government to get the money back. But it’s not always the case that the government actually does get the money back. Often it gets kind of lost in the shuffle.

Martinez: When you were before the congressional subcommittee, I suspect that not only were you giving them some basic information like you’re discussing with us here, but that you were also making some recommendations. What are those?

Robinson: First and foremost, we want to restrict Pell Grants to students who are actually in poverty — students who are going to benefit from those grants the most. We also want to restrict the grants to students who are most likely to benefit in terms of academic potential. So one of the recommendations we made is kind of looking at possible criteria to put on Pell Grants for academics, whether those are GPA, having to take certain classes, SAT scores — just something to try to target those Pell Grants to students who are really academically prepared for college work.