The Obama administration selected 44 colleges Monday for an experiment that lets high school students enrolled in college courses pay for them using Pell grants, a form of federal financial aid that covers tuition, books and fees for needy college students.

Dual-enrollment courses offer students a chance to save money, earn credits toward a degree and get a taste of the college experience. While 82 percent of public high schools partner with colleges to help more than 1.4 million students earn credits, low-income and minority students are underrepresented in these programs, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan think tank.

To remedy that problem, the Obama administration will provide approximately $20 million in Pell grants to as many as 10,000 high school students in dual-enrollment programs this fall. Money will be available to students enrolled in these programs as well as those interested in signing up. The experiment will last for three years.

“The courses students take in high school … are major factors not only in whether students go to college, but also how well they will do when they get there. The more rigorous and engaging the classes are the better,” Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said on a call with reporters Monday. “With this pilot program, we are one step closer to making college more affordable and accessible to all students.”

Nearly 80 percent of the schools invited to participate in the dual-enrollment experiment are community colleges, including the College of Southern Maryland in La Plata, Germanna Community College in Fredericksburg and Hagerstown Community College in Hagerstown. These schools must let students earn at least 12 credit hours, provide academic support and assist in filling out the FAFSA, the form the government and colleges use to determine need-based aid.

Participating colleges must also ensure that students who are eligible for Pell will not be left on the hook for any charges once the grants and other institutional aid are applied. The current maximum Pell award, which is determined by financial need and the cost of school, is $5,775. Awards should be sufficient to cover tuition at a majority of community colleges, where the average sticker price hovers around $3,500 for the year, according to the College Board.

Only students attending public schools can participate in the pilot for now, though that may change depending on the program’s success, department officials said. Students must fill out the FAFSA to receive a grant, which cannot be used for any remedial classes.

Higher education research suggests that participation in dual enrollment can improve academic outcomes, especially for low-income students and those who are the first in their families to attend college, according to the Education Department. Students in these programs tend to have better grades in high school, high rates of college enrollment after high school and higher rates of persistence in college.

Still, cost can be a barrier. Cost of attendance varies as some states, municipalities or colleges absorb a portion, if not all, of the expense. More often than not, families have to at least cover books and fees, which could be prohibitive for those with modest means.

Ted Mitchell, under secretary of education, said the administration hopes the experiment will offer insight into the impact of providing earlier access to financial aid on low-income students’ college access, participation and success. Mitchell said high school students he met during a round-table discussion at the College of Southern Maryland Monday said the cost of textbooks, transportation and tuition were impediments to taking dual-enrollment courses.

“We’re very interested in whether the availability of Pell grants in removing those obstacles increases the enrollment of low-income students in dual-enrollment programs, and then leads to higher rates of participation in four-year degree programs and completion,” Mitchell said.

There are concerns about how early access could impact students’ Pell eligibility down the road. Students can only use the grants to pay for 12 semesters. If they decide to change or double-up on majors, they could run the risk of running out of the money. The department anticipates high school students will only draw down a fraction of their available aid since they will be enrolled part time.

“Rather than burning Pell dollars, these grants will accelerate students’ trajectory toward completing a degree on time or early, at cost or lower cost,” Mitchell said.

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