Pa. financial aid agency OKs grants for remote students

A pilot program beginning this fall will allow students taking classes remotely through public colleges to apply for grants from Pennsylvania’s financial aid agency, the PHEAA.

The five-year trial from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency is designed to accommodate increasing numbers of “distance learners” taking classes online to save time and money.

Before this year, the grants were closed to students who took 50 percent or more of their credits remotely.

PHEAA spokesman Keith New says that’s not because the agency was skeptical about the quality of the classes.

“We were never worried about being non-credible courses, because the course needed to be state-grant eligible to begin with,” said New. “In many situations, you would see that the same course being offered in a traditional classroom setting, the school now may be offering in a distance education situation.”

Kenn Marshall, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, says although many students in the state’s public universities do take at least one online course over the course of their careers, under 15 percent primarily or totally work towards their degrees from off-campus.

“A lot of those students are older students. They’re nontraditional students if you will,” Marshall said. “But because of the fact they’re working, they may have families, that makes them somewhat place bound, and there may not be a campus nearby where they can take classes, or there may not be convenient times.”

New added that PHEAA is adjusting to what looks like a steep increase in students loading up on online courses in the past few years.

The percentage of students taking one or more remote classes has risen from 9.6 percent in 2002 to 32 percent in 2011 nationally, he said.

Any public Pennsylvania college with an online degree program can apply to join the pilot program until PHEAA’s Sept. 15 deadline.

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