11/27/2013 05:29 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2014

A Better Way to Help Low-Income College Students

College attainment is a priority for the Obama Administration, which recognizes that higher education is a proven way to help lift people out of the cycle of poverty. However, in the quest for the country to have more college graduates we can't penalize students who don't receive a college degree within a certain time period. This is particularly true for community college students, who often take more than two years to receive an associate's degree.

The Pell Grant program is the financial lifeline for poor students. This program is particularly crucial for community college students as it covers tuition costs as well as providing additional money for books, transportation and living expenses.

A recent New York Times editorial, "Stop Penalizing Poor College Students," demonstrates how difficult it has become for students at community colleges, which charge by the credit hour, to complete a degree within two years. At private colleges, a Pell Grant often covers the flat amount for one semester of course work. Community colleges charge by the credit hour with an average of $100 per credit.

Pushing all students to register for 15 credit hours as the key to completion might be the right fit for the traditional four year model, but as the Times editorial details, it is not the right approach for community college student.

Not all students are created equal. If a student qualifies for the maximum annual Pell Grant, he would receive $5,645 per year or $2,822.50 each semester. At a community college, this amount would cover 12 credit hours, not the 15 needed to graduate within two years.

In order to take 15 credit hours, a student would need to make up the difference of $705. This is a financial hardship few can afford. In addition, community college students are often older with jobs and family responsibilities and often can't take on a full course load of 15 hours. We are putting a strain on these students who are struggling to balance their finances just well enough to make higher education a priority.

Hawaii instituted "15 to Finish" in 2012 and found that it increased the percentage of students taking 15 credits. However, the most significant improvement was found at universities with flat rate tuition rather than at community colleges that charge by credit hour.

At Indiana's Ivy Tech Community College, its Associated Accelerated Program (ASAP) was recently featured in a Wall Street Journal article "College Makes Studying Pay," This program enables students to complete an associate's degree in one year. It provides funding for essentials such as bus fare. The program's completion rate is high -- more than 70 percent. Students are recruited from local high schools and asked to commit to living at home and not working during the week while they are in school.

I believe this Ivy Tech program works because we have alleviated a significant financial burden many students face when they decide to attend school. This enables them to focus full-time on their studies. We were fortunate to have funding from the Lumina Foundation that provided $2.3 million to launch the program in 2010.

But we recognize that a program of this nature doesn't work for all community college students. In the case of Ivy Tech, the ASAP program was set up to help recent high school graduates who don't have other commitments on their time or financial resources.

We need to make it easier for community college students to enroll and get a degree by making sure that whether they enroll for twelve credit hours or fifteen that a Pell Grant will provide a financial safety net covering most of their expenses.

What Congress needs to do is re-define full time enrollment and give students who enroll at community colleges a larger Pell Grant if they take more than 12 credit hours. It is the responsibility of legislators and educators to do all that we can to help poor students get a college degree.