Rep. Ralph Norman

Republican Congressman Ralph Norman pulled a gun in a Rock Hill diner to show how stable a responsible gun owner he is.  File/AP/Chuck Burton

U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman is co-sponsoring a bill that would force low-income students who don't graduate from college in six years to repay their federal Pell Grants — with interest.

The South Carolina Republican has called the Pell for Performance Act, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 15, a "taxpayer-friendly" bill that would encourage students to graduate in a timely manner.

"This legislation will ultimately save taxpayer dollars by holding Pell Grant recipients accountable for not graduating on time, rather than leaving the taxpayer to foot the bill," Norman said.

Margaret Cahalan, director of research organization The Pell Institute, called Norman's bill "very misguided." She said low-income students often must work long hours at day jobs during college, putting up an obstacle to on-time graduation that other students do not face.

"This would probably further depress the opportunity that low-income students have to achieve a college degree," she said.

Pell Grants are a type of need-based financial aid that can provide up to $5,920 per year to help cover the costs of attending a four-year, two-year or community college. Federal tax dollars currently provide about $22.5 billion a year for these grants.

After decades of soaring tuition, the maximum student Pell award currently covers only about 30 percent of the cost of a four-year education — the lowest proportion in history and less than half of what a Pell award covered in 1980, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

An October report from the Brookings Institution looked at four-year colleges and found that the six-year graduation rate was 51.4 percent for Pell recipients, compared with 59.2 percent for non-Pell recipients.

Norman's bill would have a big impact in high-poverty states like South Carolina. Almost 126,000 students from South Carolina received Pell grants totaling more than $465 million in 2015-16, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Federal law already limits the period during which a student can receive Pell Grants to 12 semesters, or six years. Norman's bill would require the grants to be treated as unsubsidized Stafford Loans after six years without graduation and be subject to repayment, together with interest accruing from the date of the grant award.

A staffer in Norman's office said current Pell recipients would be exempt. The bill also includes exceptions for students who are on active military duty or who experience illness, injury or the death of a relative.

Norman, who represents South Carolina's 5th Congressional District, took office in June. He co-sponsored the bill with Republican Reps. Francis Rooney of Florida and Rick Allen of Georgia. Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Arizona, introduced a nearly identical bill last year that stalled in the House.

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.