01/19/2016 14:41 EST | Updated 01/19/2017 00:12 EST

Obama administration seeks Pell grant expansion

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration wants to expand the federal Pell grant program to help more students graduate from college — by providing them with money to attend classes year-round and reward them for taking more credits.

Two new proposals, announced Tuesday by the Education Department, would expand the $29 billion program by $2 billion in the new fiscal year. They'll be part of President Barack Obama's budget proposal next month.

One proposal, called the Pell for Accelerated Completion, would help low-income students earn Pell money for a third semester in an academic year — letting them take classes over the summer. Many full-time students exhaust their annual eligibility after two semesters. The other, dubbed the On-Track Pell Bonus, would give a $300 reward to students taking at least 15 credits per semester in an academic year.

"These two new Pell proposals will help students stay on track to finish college on time or faster by allowing students to access additional Pell aid," said Acting Secretary John King in a press call with reporters. King, who took the helm at the department this month after the retirement of Arne Duncan, said college completion is his priority this year.

Eighty-per cent of the wealthiest high school graduates continue into higher education, said King, while just over half of the lowest-income students do. He said hopes the two new proposals will change that.

Pell grants are for low-income people and they do not have to be repaid.

The department says the Pell proposal aimed at another semester could help nearly 700,000 students next year with another $1,900, on average, for college.

The bonus for taking at least 15 credits a semester would help an estimated 2.3 million students, according to the department.

The government awarded $28.7 billion in Pell grants to almost 8.3 million students in the 2015 fiscal year. The average Pell grant was about $3,600. The maximum Pell award for the 2015-2016 school year is $5,775.

Jennifer C. Kerr, The Associated Press